The State of the Art--Part 1




There's been so much disappointment surounding the personal flyer you'd think people might have given up by now; if anything, its the reverse. The media used to report on it with a condescending tone and the obligatory tongue-in-cheek allusion to "the Jetsons". Now, the reporting is more serious--a consequence, no doubt, of the  fairly large amounts of money that continue to be spent on R&D. Both N.A.S.A. and Darpa for example, operate research divisions and sponsor national competitions. Corporations are increasingly showing their support too, disproving the notion that the Personal Flying Vehicle is the exclusive domain of backyard cranks. This relatively new institutional effort differs significantly from old fasioned grassroots experimentation. It strongly favors a top-down 'transportation system in a box" approach. That is: an integrated system of autonomous or guided aircraft that can operate over urban airspace. It relies, too, upon the "zero-failure' philosophy, borrowed from the space program, where supercritical, hi-tech engineering and redundant back-up systems are employed. Such vehicles, they maintain, will be safe enough not to need a secondary aerodynamic means of descent, (in which case weight is not as much of a concern either.) The resultant crop of Concept Vehicles (which includes an inordinate proportion of Flying Cars), are jammed with electronics, Thermal Engines and other bits of tech that "aren't quite ready yet" and are, in our opinion, overengineered, overweight, over-optimistic, and way, way overpriced--at least in this century.


"The utopean dream of the Flying Car is basically a sham", says analyst Chris Clarke. Maybe a little harsh, Chris, but we basically agree, at least for the short term . For one thing, if you have a Vtol personal flyer than can get you from point-to-point, and had been proven safe, why on earth would you go to the incredible complexity, and cost, of trying to make the flying machine drive--neither of which it will do well. As far as an automated turnkey transport system goes, in time such a program should become possible. If we stretch our imaginations we might envision some wealthy, futuristic-oriented Kuwait or Dubai or similar principality, deciding upon a new "Arcology" or "City of the Future" which might be based on this exact type of Personal Air Transportation System. Whether now or in a hundred years, the critical decision is to evaluate the safety of each vehicle individually. So far, none of them fill us with confidence.

PHOTOS: None of this group has the ability to autorotate. (Or even glide). Balistic Parachutes are suggested--but such devices require 200 feet of altitude to deploy. Since the ideal range of any Personal Flyer will be from the nap of the earth zone, (from the ground up to 200 feet) it is this very area  the ballistic parachute provides no safety backup whatsoever. It actually makes hovering and landing approaches and take-offs even more dangerous, by giving the operator a false sense of security. ANY mechanical failure to the power/propulsion system will be a catastophic event.


While the visionaries scour technical journals for this months' crop of Concept Vehicles, looking for the long hoped-for breakthrough, ordinary people get their flying experience by matching an existing design to their particular needs, skills, and resources. Without Vtol or hovering ability none of these choices meet our definition of a Personal Flying Vehicle (although a few are getting close). The trick is for the pilot to get maximum utility out of his or her machine by choosing one that will get him a greater variety and number of destinations. There are many more small, unimproved fields within a given radius than there are serviced airports or flying fields. As a result STOL aircraft (short take-off and landing) have become increasingly popular. For the same reasons, ultralights and gyros are more and more being equipped with rough field capabilities or with amphibious gear.