TECHNOLOGY UPDATE

Flying cars get DARPA boost

Need to hop over roadside bombs may finally be the needed catalyst for aircraft–auto combo.


Terrafugia Transition, 6 years in development, may be the 1st truly practical flying car. With more than 100 firm orders, it was slated for delivery in 2011 but has been delayed to 2015. A VTOL successor is planned for 2021.

Looking further into the future, there is the Samson Switchblade—another sleek, roadable 2-place design. First announced at EAA's annual gathering at OSH (Oshkosh WI), the aircraft is planned as a kit for amateur builders.

On the ground, its slender wings—23 ft 4 in long and with a total area of just 62 sq ft—will fold forward into a clamshell case to protect them against road debris.

Powered by a 170-hp Suzuki Hayabusa engine, the 1550-lb plane is expected to cruise at 139 kts, stall at 58 kts and travel 300 nm on a tank of gas. In 2011, the company expected the kit to cost some $60,000.

Like so many flying cars, the Switchblade has been delayed. When it was announced in 2009, it was supposed to fly the following year. By 2012, only a 1/4-scale model had been flown. The only full-sized vehicle is a steel-tube go-kart used to prove its ground drive train in 2010.

Current updates to the company website announce advances such as assembly of the front brake and wheel bearing and selection of a lightweight differential to drive the wheels. Delivery and price forecasts are nowhere to be found.

The Transformer "flying Humvee," commissioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is still in the works. Design criteria for the $54-million, 5-year program, announced in 2010, call for a VTOL craft that can travel 250 nm on land, in the air, or by any combination of the 2 while carrying up to 1000 lbs of payload, including 4 "warfighters" and 350 lbs of cargo.

Other requirements include the capacity for critical medical evacuation, semiautonomous flight (allowing operation by a non-pilot), the ability to fit on a 1-lane road, and operation up to 10,000 ft.

The 4-place Moller M400 Skycar has passed hover tests but never flown. Priced at $3.5M, on eBay in 2006, it did not sell.

By Oct 2012, the 2 prime systems integrators had offered concepts for the vehicle.

Lockheed Martin's design includes 2 ducted fans 8 ft 6 in across. Mounted on fold-out wings 40 ft 6 in long, they provide thrust downward for takeoff and landing and backward for vertical flight. Driven by twin turboshaft engines, the vehicle is expected to fly at up to 130 kts. A 1/3-scale model is scheduled for wind tunnel testing in 2013.

Moller M200 Neuera, also seen below with other Moller models. Specs include a Vc of 138 mph and FL80 max altitude.

Drone builder AAI Corp suggested getting airborne with a 50-ft autogyro rotor, fold-out wings, and a pusher ducted fan. Landing is by autorotation.

Ground speed is up to 80 mph, with airspeeds between 50 and 155 kts. Unconfirmed reports have suggested that to meet the VTOL requirement the aircraft's rotor will be engine-driven during takeoff—a concept patented by the Cierva Autogiro Company in 1936. To date, AAI has been extremely close-mouthed about the details.

Technically, there is one roadable air vehicle available today. It is not a car, but it can reportedly be licensed as a motorcycle. However, many would-be car pilots may find it a bit barebones for their daily commute.

The Super Sky Cycle is a single-place open-frame gyrocopter powered by a 115-hp turbocharged Rotax engine. For road travel, a 27-hp 2-stroke engine spins the rear wheels. Highway speed is 55 mph. Top speed in the air is 80 mph. Range in flight is about 70 miles with the standard 7.5-gal tank, but 2 optional tanks of 5 gal each extend it to 180 miles with reserve.

The builder, Air Surveillance of Boyd TX, is marketing the Super Sky Cycle as a cheap alternative to law-enforcement helicopters. Factory finished, the base price is $64,995, but upgrades such as radio, transponder and recovery parachute bring the all-up cost of 1 unit now available to $92,760. The craft is also available as a kit for home builders at the same price. A comparable nonroadable model goes for $49,995.

Its specs claim that the sleek Samson Switch­blade, a kit aircraft, will cruise 300 nm at 139 kts— some day.

What of the other contenders for flying-car glory? A couple of long-distance runners still seem to be plodding on.

The grand old man of the roadable-flight fraternity is Paul Moller of Moller Intl, in Davis CA. He has been working on his Skycar series for some 40 years.

Moller's 4-place Skycar M400 is an ethanol-burning, 2400-lb "volantor"—Moller's coinage. It has 3 wheels, folding wings and 4 ducted fans that rotate 45° down for takeoff and landing.

On the ground, the M400 is intended only for short-distance travel to and from the nearest airport at speeds under 30 mph. In the sky, it's something else. Design performance includes takeoffs and landings within about twice the craft's length, a top speed of 331 mph, range of 805 miles and an operating ceiling of FL360.

The M200 Neuera is a small flying saucer with a top speed of 100 mph. It cruises at 75 mph and has a range of 100 miles. With a 350-lb payload, it has room for 2 standard-weight occupants. A ground-effect version, the M200G, is said to be operable without a pilot's license.

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