It’s time to finally kill the idea of a flying car once and for all. The idea of a flying car has been a dream of many people since the invention of the airplane and the automobile in the early 1900s, but alas, the concept has never proven to be practical. The fantasy has persisted, probably because traffic has only gotten worse, and frustrated drivers wished their car could sprout wings and soar above the earth-bound masses stuck in grid lock. While several versions of a flying car have been built and flown (see the Aerocar in the 1940’s), and more recently the Terrafugia, none have ever been produced in numbers or proven to be economically practical to the average person. In fact the few designs that have flown turned out to be a poor compromise – not a very good car or a very good aircraft. With rapidly advancing technology in drones, electric aircraft, and autonomous, on-demand cars, I believe the quest for a “flying car” has been OBE (Overcome By Events).
There are several recent developments, backed by deep pockets such as Google, that may be able to provide point-to-point transportation, especially in urban areas, using V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take Off & Landing) electrically-powered Personal Air Vehicles (as NASA prefers to call them). While these PAV’s will land at designated V/STOL ports scattered throughout urban areas, the PAV would NOT convert to a ground vehicle. To get you the “final mile” to your destination, you will just summon a car-sharing service (like Uber) with your smart phone to reach the door step of the place or person you are visiting. Just as the on-demand car will drop you off and seek out other customers, so too will the PAV that got you close to your destination. Soon these car-sharing services will be fully autonomous as most likely will the PAV, as it takes off to fly elsewhere to retrieve another passenger. Even now, with rapidly expanding use of on-demand driving services, most folks with a small plane flying into conventional airports can already use these car-sharing services to get to their final destination. So no need to have the capability, let along the complexity, cost and compromises, of a plane that converts to a car.
As I followed the rapidly advancing drone technology these past few years, I speculated that it was just a matter of time before the multi-rotor drones being flown by hobbyists would be scaled up to carry a person or persons. We’re not quite there yet, but getting close. Check out this recent video of a hexadecacopter (16 electric motors and propellers) lifting a person well off the ground. The future of PAVs, in conjunction with autonomous ground transportation, is within view. Unfortunately lazy, misinformed journalists still like to use the nomenclature “Flying Cars”, as it’s always a good attention-grabbing headline. But from what I see of the future, it’s finally time to bury that phrase, and concept, for good.
SpaceX made history tonight when the team successfully recovered the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket with a soft landing on a pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The primary purpose of the launch was to place into orbit 11 Orbcomm-2 communications satellites, which was successfully accomplished 15 minutes after first stage separation. The most impressive part of the mission though was when the first stage of the Falcon 9 re-ignited it’s main engines to slow down as it fell from the edge of space, then used thrusters and aerodynamic vanes on the side of the first stage to precisely steer and decelerate to a soft landing at a pad at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX’s previous attempts at recovering the first stage were on a floating barge in the ocean, and though they came close twice, both previous attempts ended with the booster landing too hard and exploding. Though Jeff Bezo’s company Blue Origin managed to recover their booster in a similar fashion in Texas last month, their rocket was much smaller and only flew to suborbital altitude (about 110 KM), where as the Falcon 9 booster carried 11 satellites to orbit. Recovering the large first stage in an orbital rocket, then refurbishing and reusing it, is key to greatly reducing the cost of placing payloads in space, and has been one of the main goals of Space from the beginning.
SpaceX did a great job of live-streaming the launch and recovery of the first stage, along with narration and live video of the SpaceX control room in Hawthorne, CA. The video showed a large number of young, excited engineers and support staff cheering on as each phase of the mission successfully progressed. Moments like this are great PR not only for SpaceX, but also for attracting young people to a career in Aerospace. Give credit to SpaceX founder Elon Musk for making space exploration exciting again, and attracting a whole new generation of engineers and scientists to the field.
I’ve had the opportunity to attend the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas the last few years, and I’m always interested to see what gadgets may be applicable to the aerospace industry, or technologies that started in the aerospace industry and have trickled down to the consumer arena. Usually the aerospace tech is only found in small displays off the main floors that are filled with giant TVs, stereos and cell phone accessories. But this year CES 2015 had an entire area devoted to the hottest thing in aerospace: UAV’s. Just last year there were only 3 or 4 small displays showing UAV’s, but this year the dedicated “Unmanned Systems” zone at CES 2015 had at least a dozen different UAV and UAV accessory manufacturers.
Unmanned Systems Zone at CES
Everything from tiny drones that fit into the palm of your hand, to large ones capable of carrying high def video cameras with gyro-stabilized camera gimbals.
Palm-sized mini UAVs at CES 2015
Camera Carrying UAV Controlled by Tablet
Numerous manufacturers also were conducting flying demos in netted areas, just in case an errant UAV decided to go rogue and fly into the spectators. While all this UAV tech was prominently displayed at CES, it does concern me that these impressive little flying quadcopters are being mass-marketed to the general public. I can see why the FAA is concerned and attempting to get some workable regulations in place. I once had a close encounter of the uncomfortable kind while flying my Citabria, when a Radio Control (RC) plane flew underneath me as I approached my local airport. It appeared to be a full-size airplane climbing towards me as I caught a glimpse of it in my peripheral vision. Only after I banked steeply to avoid it did I realize it was an RC plane several hundred feet below me and flying out of the local RC field. All it will take is some yahoo who doesn’t understand the airspace regulations to collide his quadcopter with a small plane, or even worse, a commercial airliner, to send the public into a panic. The next few years are going to be very interesting to see how the U.S. safely integrates the thousands of expected UAVs into the national airspace system.
The other cool tech I saw at CES 2015 was a technology that flowed down from the aerospace industry to the consumer level, in this case Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) products. FLIR Systems was showing their FLIR One (second generation), a personal thermal imager that simply plugs into your iPhone or Android phone, and displays in real time on your phone the temperature differences of surrounding objects. During a demo of the FLIR One at the booth, I was able to clearly see the temperature of a heating duct 50 feet away on the ceiling. Company reps at the booth estimated this next generation compact FLIR for your phone would sell for under $400 sometime later this year. Quite a bit less than the first FLIR systems I saw on military aircraft back in the early 1990s, used for weapons targeting and flying in bad weather. If I remember, those systems sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Now you can carry one in your pocket for less than 400 bucks – amazing.
The crash and total destruction, of the only flying sub-orbital vehicle produced by Virgin Galactic will probably lead to the cancellation of the first attempt at flying paying customers to the edge of space. The mishap last Friday (31OCT14) resulted in the death of test pilot Michael Alsbury and serious injuries to the other pilot, Pete Siebold, both working for Scaled Composites, the company contracted to build and test SpaceShipTwo. The oft-delayed, and over-hyped (by Uber-marketeer Richard Branson) program promised much more than it could ever deliver, as I’ve blogged about before. Apparently others more familiar with the program than I have had serious concerns that the rocket plane could even get its tourists to near space. As an aerospace engineer who has worked in crew safety for much of my career, including crew escape studies for the Space Shuttle and the X-30 aerospace plane, I was always concerned about the lack of safety systems not just for the test pilots, but also for the eventual paying passengers on SpaceShipTwo. In spite of what the press has erroneously reported (check out this totally false graphic from the British Daily Mail. It shows the old Stanley escape capsule used in the B-58 Hustler bomber from the 1950’s!), there were no ejection seats provide for the test pilots of SpaceShipTwo. They only had parachutes for manual bailout, plus they did not wear pressure suits. My opinion is that the pilot who survived was most likely thrown clear from the wreckage during vehicle breakup, while the co-pilot who died was trapped in the wreckage and never had a chance to open his chute. Since neither pilot was wearing a pressure suit, there was the additional danger associated with rapid decompression, which becomes deadlier the higher you fly. I can’t even imagine how Virgin Galactic expects to take paying customers up to 62 miles without any pressure suits, let alone some type of crew escape. If you want to see how serious crew safety should be conducted for space flight, read former astronaut Tom Jone’s excellent article, “Surviving a Bad Day”, page 12, in the September 2014 issue of Aerospace America.
I wonder if Richard Branson’s continuous hype of the program, through his statements that commercial flights were just around the corner, placed subtle pressure on the engineers of Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic to compress the test schedule or cut corners on safety. As I’ve said before, spaceflight is very hard, and if paying tourists expect the same safety and reliability of a commercial airliner, they have been sorely mislead. With all the intense technical scrutiny (much of it not very flattering, I’m sure) of Virgin Galactic resulting from this mishap, I don’t think Virgin will have the funding or the support to retool the program to the point where it will every produce a safe, reliable space vehicle for carrying tourists to the edge of space. Sadly it took the death and serious injury of two fine test pilots before they found this out.
With little fanfare, Google executive Alan Eustace broke the freefall parachute record on Friday, October 24, when he disconnected from a balloon at an altitude of almost 136,000 feet. His freefall lasted over four minutes, at which point he deployed his ramair chute and landed safely in a remote area of New Mexico. Unlike the highly publicized and commercialized effort funded by Red Bull that set the record two years ago, Eustace and his small StratEx team worked in secret over the last three years to accomplish the impressive technical feat. I have to give credit to Eustace and his team for keeping their effort quiet, simple, and safe. From the initial video of the flight, it looks like Eustace was literally hanging in the prone position from the bottom of the balloon in nothing but his pressurized suit all the way up to the drop altitude, unlike the complex and expensive capsule that the Red Bull team used in 2012 to allow Felix Baumgartner to break the record. As I wrote in a previous blog post, to me the Red Bull record attempt was more about marketing than real science. The StratEx simplified approach also makes it seem like the Red Bull team made their effort over-complicated so it would seem more difficult and dangerous than it really was.
I’m still skeptical of the applicability of these skydives to aircraft/spaceship crew escape issues at very high altitudes and speeds, but it appears that some of the technology developed for this effort could have some other aerospace applications. The pressure suit technology developed for this freefall was developed by ILC Dover (which has extensive experience developing space suits) and could be applicable to space flight or very high altitude atmospheric flight. Also, the balloon technology could be used to take small payloads to very high altitudes much cheaper than rockets. Though Eustace indicated that he received no funding from Google, is it just a coincidence that Google’s Project Loon has been researching high altitude balloons to beam inexpensive internet to rural areas? It will be interesting to see if Google supplied some balloon technology to StratEx to get some more real world testing of their concepts.
As I’ve always thought, if you are going to try to push the bounds of technical achievement in flight or space, do your work quietly, competently, and safely. If it’s a good effort, the final results will stand on their own merit, and then you can tell your story. You then won’t be in the uncomfortable position of explaining or backtracking if things don’t work out, especially if you raised peoples expectations or over-hyped it. (Can you say Virgin Galactic?) So congrats to Alan Eustace (an engineer, by the way) and his StratEx team for doing this remarkable feat competently, safely, and out of the public eye until success was achieved.