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NASA Wants You To Fly The Highway In The Sky 248

rakerman writes "NASA is working on a program called SATS, the Small Aircraft Transportation System, which is designed to improve the automation and safety of small aircraft travel to the point where you could fly the 'highway in the sky' as easily as you drive your car." I'm ready -- when is the Moller Skycar?
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NASA Wants You To Fly The Highway In The Sky

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  • I'm looking forward to the 3-dimensional traffic jams..
    • Re:Tee hee (Score:2, Insightful)

      by SEWilco ( 27983 )
      "IF there were the same number of Skycars in the sky tomorrow, as there are cars on the roads today, each Skycar in the sky would be over a mile away (in all directions) from any other Skycar in the sky!" [] (see question 4.8)

      The surrounding information also make it apparent that a Skycar society would use automated air traffic control and the Skycars would talk to nearby Skycars to fly in an orderly manner.

      For several reasons, implementors would probably create highways, although they might arrange themselves automatically rather than being printed on maps. Vehicles in or near Des Moines which are headed toward Chicago might tend to be gathered into a pipe-shaped area (a "highway") and there may be similar standard air routes for moving around Chicago, with slower and vertical flight taking place at altitudes below the air routes. Direct travel would also be possible, but grouping traffic simplifies the navigation problems for all craft. Particularly around the borders of the various restricted airspaces, where traffic going around could get concentrated. Doing the geometry, it's apparent that whether routes are defined by maps or by calculations based on following standard rules, they're likely to appear in some form.

      • For several reasons, implementors would probably create highways,

        Not the least of which would be the 'restricted airspace' over wealthy neighborhoods.
  • It was due by the end of 1999 but fell into an Access database y2k bug vortex...
  • History Repeating.. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by NeuralAbyss ( 12335 ) on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @05:25AM (#2594937) Homepage
    Whilst it might be safe for hundreds, or even thousands of vehicles, what happens when everybody jumps on the bandwagon?

    Remember the old films of when cars were had by the minority? Just look at where it's brought us now...
    • Interesting fact (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      First two automobiles in Illionois crashed into each other :)

      I blame there parents myself.
    • Then I will finaly have the highways for me and me alone :)
    • You're thinking in terms of the traffic congestion we have today on the road. Consider the following:

      Flight is three-dimensional.

      Flight can go point-to-point. There's no reason for multiple aircraft to follow "highways in the sky" like you see in the old Warner Brothers cartoons.

      If you fly, you'll spend a lot less time travelling than you do now. It takes me half an hour to get from my house in Los Gatos down to the Apple campus. That's 1/2 hour that I'm on the road. Flying, that would probably be more like 10 minutes, tops. IOW, twenty minutes when I'm *not* in transit.

      Traffic is a problem today, because you have so many people going to places near each other, and they all have to be funneled into the highways. With personal air travel, the congestion simply isn't necessary.

      • There are lots of reasons for aircraft to follow highways in the sky, the main one being that some point to point routes are bound to be heavily congested. I for one would dread flying round New York if everyione was performing point to point flying. Anticipating what someone is going to to in mid air is extremely hard and remember that closure speeds are going to be much faster (400-1000mph!).

        Traffic management can only do so much and the best software in the world is going to go into screaming fits trying to manage point to point flying. If it has some highway rules, then there is the possibility it can do it.
        • Hence automation. It should be relatively simple to designate a minimum distance between vehicles and have the onboard computer do the flying for you. None of that messy stuff like pedestrians, or buildings, or having to stay in your lane that would require complicated AI.

          I've always liked this joke about commercial aircraft. As you no doubt know, jets used to have 3 pilots, but as automation increased, they reduced it down to two. Now, for the proposed Boeing 787, they're going to reduce it further, to just on pilot and a dog.

          You know what the dog's for?

          To bite the pilot's hand if he tries to touch anything.

          Ba-dum-bum. Thank you folks, I'll be here all week.

  • Cool! This remind anyone of Back to the Future Part II where they go to 2015? We'd be a few years ahead, possibly! But where else are we going to find 1.21 gigawatts of power? It can't be done... unless I can get that flux capacitor off of eBay!
  • bad enough (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tiwason ( 187819 )
    Its bad enough to have cars clogging the roads....

    Whats this going to come to...

    - Can't see the sky... too many flying cars

    - Try to get away from it all... go on a hike... flying cars are all over

    - They start to leak oil and anti-freeze... watch out below.. (or litterbugs)

    anyhow.... cars kill how many people each day ??? Fix what we got first.... and figure out the social impact before going ahead with this one..

    (then again... could open up some great back-country skiing.. but what fun would that be)

    • - Can't see the sky... too many flying cars

      I'm sure one can paint the cars that way that they are nearly invisible, some flat LCD which changes it color from blue to white (or grey if you live in a unhealty environment).

      But some weeks later the first fleet of cars will write the newest Duff Beer slogan into the sky...
      • Re:bad enough (Score:3, Interesting)

        by znu ( 31198 )
        As they discovered while trying to sneak up on subs during WWII, paint doesn't work. No matter what color you paint an aircraft, when it's far away it shows up as a black dot. You need illumination, which for this application would definitely be more trouble than it was worth.
        • I recall seeing on some TV show about a camoflage trick for that. They actually put lights on the aircraft. The intensity of the lights was then adjusted so that their brightness matched the average brightness of the background. From any reasonable distance the aircraft just belnded into the background. Apparently it worked fairly well.
          You just reminded me of it.
      • I'm sure one can paint the cars that way that they are nearly invisible, some flat LCD which changes it color from blue to white

        <sarcasm>Oh, that's a good idea! What we need is 200 million stealth cars flying around.</sarcasm>
    • Flying cars would probably be a good deal safer. There's a lot more room in the sky than on the highways. You wouldn't have to come anywhere near other vehicles or anything else you could crash into. You wouldn't be in a situation where getting distracted for a couple of seconds could kill people. And it would be much easier to implement computer control over everything. Now that I think about it, in light of recent events, you'd probably want mandatory computer control, so people couldn't fly the things into buildings....
      • Re:bad enough (Score:2, Insightful)

        by drsquare ( 530038 )
        No, it would be far more dangerous. For a start, when a car breaks down or runs out of petrol, you can just pull over and stop. What do you do with a plane?

        And computer control? If computer control is so good, why are there pilots on planes? If someone was going to fly a plane into a building, they'd just override it. "Make it un-overridable" you say? Then what happens when it goes wrong?

        This whole scheme is idiotic. Planes may be further away from each other in the sky, but what about when they come to land? Are you going to have each house with its own runway, or will there be 6000 of them all circling around the one local runway?
    • anyhow.... cars kill how many people each day ??? Fix what we got first.... and figure out the social impact before going ahead with this one..

      Actually, thats why I'm hopefull this might work. With existing automobiles, you have trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure that might need to be upgraded for any new system to work well. If you change the travel surface- or rather, remove it- you can design it from the start for safety and vehicle management, based on what we already know.

      That being said, your other points are good, and hopefully any sky car system would travel in delinated flight zones- highways in the sky, as it were (see Back to the future 2). At least the routes would be straighter, because you wouldn't have to be at the mercy of terrain.
    • > Fix what we got first.... and figure out the social impact before going ahead with this one..

      Og leave 'um meat on rock in summer. Kinda sux0rz in winter, but tribal leader tell Og to fix 'um what he got and figure out social impact before going ahead with fire stuff.

  • I sure hope it isn't windows... BSOD gets a whole new meaning....
  • 3D Driving (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cosmosis ( 221542 ) on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @05:35AM (#2594953) Homepage
    Many years ago when I was in Aerospace Engineering School and inspired by the movie Blade Runner, I designed a steerting mechanism that would make flying VTOL easy for anyone already skilled at driving a car. Right now typical airplane flight is quite complicated. My design was based on the notion that compuational power would catch up by the time my design would be feasible. The idea is simple:

    For turning left or right you simply turn the steering wheel - the appropriate roll, pitch and yaw are calculated by the onboard computer. To increase or decrease altitute simply move the steering wheel in or out. As for speed, the standard gas and break pedals would speed up or slow the vehical down. This all results in an incredibly easy and intuitive control of a VTOL vehical. Want to come to a stop 100 feet up and then slowly lower the vehical down? First apply the breaks. The VTOL aircraft then comes to a stop, hovering at 100 feet. To lower the car to the ground, simply push the steering wheel in. The speed of decent can controlled by the onboard computer to insure that proper decent velocity is maintained.

    • Re:3D Driving (Score:5, Informative)

      by pongo000 ( 97357 ) on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @06:10AM (#2595008)
      You may be interested in knowing that such a system as you describe (well, except for the hovering part) as been around since the '40s. The Ercoupe [] doesn't have rudder pedals: On the ground, you steer it like a car (unlike conventional aircraft, in which you use the rudder pedals), and all turns are coordinated since rudder movement is tied to the yoke, which also controls the ailerons. Supposedly, it's nearly impossible to get the Ercoupe into a spin.
    • "My design was based on the notion that compuational power would catch up by the time my design would be feasible. The idea is simple:"

      Well, it is simple, unless it's restricted to Microsoft products (or even linux), in which case I'm sure the terrorists will fund research into these flying coffins.

      Yes, I know the negative reference to linux means I'm going to be modded -6387594872497 Satan's Spawn.
  • Interesting (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @05:35AM (#2594954)
    After reading the info, it looks like it has more to do with getting people to travel in small, possibly independently owned, airplanes, rather than "flying cars" per se. I'm all for it, though. I would love to own my own airplane, and I bet they'll get cheaper to buy in the long run also.

    One thing I was thinking about though, is that high-speed chases will take on an entirely new meaning. Obviously there will be police airplanes protecting the skies, but will they be equipped with machineguns to take you down, or what? Those spike strips that they use on cars aren't gonna do a whole lot up in the air. And they can't just chase you until you run out of fuel, 'cause then you could crash into a neighborhood or something. Of course, they can't just knock you down either, or the same could happen.

    There are also issues of licences. I don't know how hard it is to get a pilot's licence, but it looks like in order for something like this to work, they're going to have to make it easier, or find some way to intice people to get them.

    One last thing. You know how when you watch the news in the morning, you hear about 4 or 5 accidents on the highway, in one day alone? How's that going to work for airplanes? They say that airplanes are the safest way to travel, but it seems to me they can make that claim because there are WAY fewer airplanes than cars. So if there are more planes, are you gonna hear about them dropping from the sky on the morning news? I wonder.

    Still sounds badass, though. I'd love to travel by plane.

    -- mesh
  • I dunno.. (Score:4, Funny)

    by PopeAlien ( 164869 ) on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @05:37AM (#2594958) Homepage Journal
    I've always heard you're statistically safer in an airplane 30,000 feet above the ground than you are in a car 30,000 feet above the ground..

    Will these be hydrogen powered? The new Honda Zeppelin?
  • Whoa! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by HaveBlue34 ( 142274 )
    Ok. first of all
    Next thing I want to know is why this isn't already done? With a GPS and a transmitter you could upload a flight plan made with something similar to driving directions from to a FAA data base, have it approved and fly away on auto pilot. Why dont comercial airlines do this? Couldn't this replace air traffic control people? Taking off and landing would be the hardest part (don't think you can do that with an auto pilot, yet). I know people will post tons of great funny jokes about how bad people drive on the ground but if all this is done via autopilot type controls I don't see a problem. Those of you with pilots liscenses enlighten me please.
    • Re:Whoa! (Score:2, Informative)

      by Ikari Gendou ( 93109 )
      It already is being done. Many small and large airports have GPS approach plates, and when the GPS is coupled to the Flight Management System (on airliners so-equipped), it can fly to any point of the hundreds of thousands of "fixes" in the sky.

      The FAA is slowly moving towards open-air navigation using GPS. They recognize the ease in workload on both pilot and ATC with this in place. Unfortunatly, the occasional position error is a bad thing for air traffic. The FAA has started a program called Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS), which is a network of ground stations that take sattilite data, correct any signal errors, and beam the corrected data to the GPS onboard.

      The only other problem is the fact that any aviation-certified GPS decks are usually pretty pricy. Expect GPS to explode over the coming years for aviation though.

      GPS & FAA []

    • Re:Whoa! (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FlyGirl ( 11285 )
      This isn't already there for many reasons.

      First of all, innovation in the aviation field are VERY slow thanks to the liabilities involved. If someone introduces some new innovation and then a plane with that new device crashes, even if the pilot is drunk, the innovator gets sued. Almost ALWAYS happens and the innovater often loses with a multi-million dollar verdict. It's pretty easy to convince the non-pilot public that this new device/equipment was at fault.

      Also, it just takes time to change such a system. Yes, they have planes that CAN fly themselves from start to finish (including take-off, landing and even taxi) but navigation is not the key role of controllers -- aircraft avoidance is.

      A few more innovations need to be made in a system to allow aircraft to travel automatically AND avoid midairs. Not much has yet been done to automate that. It is only recently that the FAA has even required airlines to have the equipment to show the pilots directly where other planes are. Until just a few years ago, the controllers would tell the pilots where nearby aircraft were.

      It'll still be a while before they couple this system to the autopilot and program it to find a path through the other aircraft. And that product will have serious potential liabilities should it ever make a "mistake".

      Give it time... it'll happen.
  • Aren't their jobs already stressfull enough without putting even more planes into the air? Or would we just see people fighting for rooftop parking spaces just like they do in cars.

    What would the equivilent of road rage be? sky-rage? air-rage?
  • by Jace of Fuse! ( 72042 ) on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @05:48AM (#2594972) Homepage
    If I'm understanding this correctly -- even if it ever becomes a reality it won't be so much like everyone having their own personal flying aircraft as much as smaller commuter type services or the like. Instead of huge passenger jets that are best suited for flights over long distances, this sort of thing would be useful in small towns outside of larger cities requiring people to do more than an hours worth of driving to get to work every day. Not only would it reduce that but it would also increase the distance one could live from work. Instead of driving to work, or riding a bus every day, they simply swing down to the nearby landing strip and catch a ride on the next flight.

    It seems like an obvious evolution in our transportation systems, really, since long commutes are getting more and more common and traffic is constantly getting worse.
    • Look around you over a week of driving and you will see why a highway in the sky for personal commuting would be more like a highway of death:

      1. Every car that you see on the side of the road that ran out of gas would be a plane falling out of the sky.

      2. Every time you see an police or ambulance racing toward a traffic accident, that would be a pair of planes falling out of the sky.

      Not to mention lots of cars on the road are barely in shape to be there... bad brakes, bad engines, bad paint jobs. If everyone had a personal flying vehicle we would eventually get a similar mix.

      I think this idea will forever be a scene in "Metropolis" and nothing more.
    • Not only would it reduce that but it would also increase the distance one could live from work. [...] It seems like an obvious evolution in our transportation systems, really, since long commutes are getting more and more common and traffic is constantly getting worse.

      It's only as "obvious" a solution to the problem as perpetually adding more and more freeways to cities. Or making cars smaller. You don't think urban sprawl is bad enough yet? Increasing the average commute distance can only make the problem worse.

      The solution isn't to make commuting faster, or more convenient. Moving people large distances, every day, regardless how efficiently, is simply a bad idea. The only solution is to reduce the NEED for commuting at all.

  • Great, now I have to watch out for idiots cutting me off in a whole new dimension.. just what I need to keep my sanity.

    Could provide a solution to road rage though, whose gonna try and punch out the guy stopped at the green light if you risk a 20 story drop.
  • by pongo000 ( 97357 ) on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @05:53AM (#2594980)
    Timmy, you're in way over your head on this one. Navigation is but a small part of flying. With GPS, one can travel directly from point A to point B. But no amount of navigational assistance will help those pilots who die because they run out of fuel. Or who die because they buzz Mom and Dad's farm, low and slow, suddenly find themselves in a stall they'll never recover from. Or who die because they think they can scud-run below the cloud deck, and then suddenly find themselves in the soup, all visual cues gone. You see, Timmy, there's much, much more to flying than simply cranking up the hangar queen every month, taking to the air, and letting a computer fly for you.

    One of the reasons why I gave up flying and sold my plane was because of so many pilots who simply did not know how to look out the window. Or how to properly enter the airport traffic pattern. So many morons in the air, and let me tell you from both a pilot perspective and an air traffic control perspective (yes, I've done both), too many pilots depend on their computer gadgets to get from point A to point B.

    Here's some perspective: Check out the NTSB [] aircraft accident site. Follow the links for monthly synopses. If you read enough of the accident reports (I've read many of them), you'll discover navigation is the least of the problems facing pilots today. Most pilots die for one of two reasons: They run out of fuel, or they fly into weather they aren't equipped or trained to handle.

    NASA has been at the forefront of the Aviation Safety Reporting System [] (ASRS), and for that I commend them. But you're sadly mistaken, Timmy, if you believe we'll see general aviation become as simple and safe as "driving your car," as you put it. There are way too many other obstacles GA pilots face than how to get from Madison to Detroit. You do your readers a disservice by pretending navigation is the biggest problem us pilots face in the world.

    I don't know about you, Timmy, but I think I'd much rather have a parachute recovery system [] for my small plane than a new nav system: The parachute will be far more useful to me when I'm involved in a midair collision with a pilot who's busy starting at his new cockpit computer rather than looking out the cockpit window.

    • Your absolutely right, just think your driving down the freeway and your timing belt snaps after 130,000 miles (this happened to me on my last trip back from Canada while driving through Montana last year) of driving. No problem just slowly ease your car to the shoulder of the road, turning on your hazard lights and thumb a ride. Ok now lets parallel this to a small airplane... something goes wrong in your engine (I'm not an airplane engine expert so I won't go into details, however whatever the problem is it basically shuts down your engine) no problem you assume the correct glide angle for maximum decent time based on your airplane specs and your cargo weight, this can all easily be programmed into any advanced airplane with an onboard computer. Ok, so now we are descending at a safe rate now the next step, find a safe landing strip... not so easy. What if your flying over residential or urban areas? How about over a large body of water, better yet over a treacherous rocky mountain range. You get my point, ditching an airplane isn't as simple as some would like to think, something else to think about is how many small aircraft pilots have actually practiced a ditched landing without any engine power? I knew a seaplane pilot who had the luck of such a landing, some pranksters drained the fuel out of his tanks about 1 min. after takeoff his engine sputtered to a stop, he managed to land back on the same lake just brushing the tops of the Cedars as he glided in, five feet less altitude and he probably would have been dead. The point is that driving a car and an airplane cannot even be compared, there are alot of different variables that must be considered before mass transit via small airplanes should be considered.
      • how many small aircraft pilots have actually practiced a ditched landing without any engine power?

        I have. I'm not a licensed pilot, but at one time I was training to be one. In 1996, my instructor and I were flying about in the '59 Cessna 150, and the engine died. Instead of taking over, the instructor told me to pick a spot and land there. The landing was a little bouncy, but otherwise uneventful. Of course, being in flat, rural Oklahoma helped immensely.

        I would have said 'IANALP' above, but the LISP programmer in me had some strange reservations about that.
    • Ten years ago, I was training for my private pilot's license. I soloed (what a rush!) and was given clearance by my instructor to leave the vicinity of the airport to go ten miles north to a practice area. One day, after practicing figure-8's, I turned south to head back to the airport. This was in the pre-GPS days, so navigation was all visual. I got lost and (unknowingly) ended up approaching the local military airbase. I heard the air-traffic controller call out to the airplane headed toward him to squawk a code on the transponder and thought to myself "What idiot is flying that close to the base?" The next thing I know, I see the airbase straight ahead! A quick 180, proper squawk, and an apologetic call to the controller straightened that out.

      If I was flying an air-car and my GPS or computer went out, I'd have to depend on my "seat-of-the-pants" ability to get me safely down. My story illustrates how easy it is to get in trouble in the air. I'm usually a cautious and courteous driver. Seeing the morons on the road today, I'd be pretty nervous about flying with them, let alone have them fly over me!

      I agree - air-cars are a LONG way off. Don't hold your breath.
      • Timmy [...] no amount of navigational assistance will help those pilots who die because they run out of fuel. Or who die because they buzz Mom and Dad's farm, low and slow, suddenly find themselves in a stall they'll never recover from

      What's with the diminitive names, Pongy?

      If aircraft crash survivability matched the work put into cars over the years, we'd already mandate the parachute recovery systems you mentioned, along with substantial airbags on light aircraft, which goes some way to addressing your concerns. We have chosen not to do that. We have chosen to focus on expensive and ongoing rigorous preventative mechanical maintenance, which doesn't do a thing to help those pilots who suffer from the primary causes of terminal idiot rash that you mentioned.

      If the Airbus A3x0 series can have a fly by wire autopilot that overrides the pilot and doesn't let him buzz the farm, why not light aircraft? Sure, it costs more, but in capital expenditure, which isn't the primary cost of flying.

      Your argument is that flying is hard, and that the sky is already full of bumbling pilots. Fine, but that's an argument for stricter license tests. You haven't made any kind of cogent argument against the flight aids in the article, other than to say that the idiots who shouldn't be in the air now will find new and exciting ways to crash.

      • > If the Airbus A3x0 series can have a fly by wire autopilot that overrides the pilot and doesn't let him buzz the farm, why not light aircraft? Sure, it costs more, but in capital expenditure, which isn't the primary cost of flying.

        Funny, wasn't that what got the Airbus pilot in trouble at the Paris Air Show? (That is, he would have done just fine if the damn autopilot hadn't overridden him while he was busy buzzing the farm ;-)

        That said, I'm in agreement with you -- I move for both stricter licensing and better flight aids. One does not preclude the other.

        Personally, I can't see "everyone" flying for their commute, even with personal VTOL aircraft, simply by virtue of the parking problem -- when you have 1000 (or 10000!) people showing up at a large company's campus between 0830 and 0930, or the constant traffic volumes of a regional shopping mall, you have the same problems as you do with automobiles, except you have 'em in 3-D.

        Which bums me out, because I still think it'd be damn cool and a hell of a lot of fun.

    • Most people can hardly DRIVE safely, let alone fly. Many pilot schemes are ongoing to bring computer assistance to the commuter, but recent work shows that the more assistance is provided the less alert the driver is. This greatly reduces their ability to take appropriate actions in an emergency.

      The same would occur with flight. Even if your on board computer worked out your route, taking in your GPS, weather information from ground and satelites etc... and stopped you doing anything 'stupid' it will crash, or a bit of freaky weather would kick up, and you'd be ASLEEP practically.
    • I'm sorry, maybe I misread that NASA site, but I don't see *anything* about navigation on it. What makes you think that's all they're talking about? We have GPS already. Clearly they're thinking about something other than GPS, or something that would use GPS. Sure, maybe Timmy's comment was wrong, but I think that they're going to attempt to create something that would be *easier* than driving your car. And clearly, that can't happen with the practices that you describe. So I guarantee you they're talking about something else. They are rocket scientists after all.
  • hmm environment? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jilles ( 20976 ) on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @06:02AM (#2594994) Homepage
    It is bad enough to have regular airplanes burning thousands of tons of kerosine in our atmosphere every day. The effect of millions of cars burning extra fuel to stay airborne in addition to getting from A to B would be disastrous IMHO.

    Then there's the issue of horizon pollution, imagine sitting in your backyard unable to escape the trafic that is passing right over it. In my country (The Netherlands) it is already hard to find a place where you can't see/hear regular trafic.

    Then there's the issue of accidents and their consequences. Apart from probably being fatal for the people inside the flying car, heavy objects dropping from the sky may pose a danger themselves as well.
    • Run the planes on hydrogen. That makes crashes much less dangerous too. NYC would almost certainly still have its two tallest buildings if those planes had been fueled with hydrogen.
      • The Hindenburg was hygrongen filled wasnt it?
        • Re:hmm environment? (Score:2, Informative)

          by ShavenYak ( 252902 )
          The Hindenburg was hygrongen filled wasnt it?

          Yes, and its skin was painted with rocket fuel [], which was probably the real cause of the disaster.
          • The Hindenburg was hygrongen filled wasnt it?

          Yes it was. The bydrogen didn't explode; it burned off rapidly and upwards []. Unfortunately, the Hindenburgh was covered in aluminium based paint. Once you ignite aluminium, it burns with a dreadful intensity; it can be found in rocket fuel, napalm and thermite. The combination of hydrogen and aluminium was about sensible as that of aviation gasoline and aluminium in today's airliners, as we found out on September the 11th.

          Of the ninety seven people on the Hindenburgh, thirty six died. That's pretty good odds for an exploding aircraft.

        • The Hindenburg's catastrophic burning was due to the highly flammable paint used on the dirigable's skin, NOT the hydrogen. Sure, hydrogen burns, but the Hindi would not have gone the way it did if not for the very nasty paint.

          Hydrogen doesn't burn hot enough or slow enough to have done the damage that hot, burning jet fuel did to the WTC.

    • The effect of millions of cars burning extra fuel to stay airborne in addition to getting from A to B would be disastrous IMHO.

      For short hops, flying point to point would probably beat driving for fuel consumption. It's very rare that you can travel in anything like a straight line to your destination when you're driving somewhere.

      Secondly, consider the situation where traffic on roads is reduced to heavy trucks only, because most passenger traffic is in the air: The trucks don't get into jams, so they can usually run their engines close to their peak efficiency.

      Thirdly, what if our major highways no longer needed eight lanes of traffic? That's a enormous amount of road work (read: diesel fumes) that no longer needs to be done.

      • I strongly doubt that planes can be as fuel efficient as cars (assuming that they have similar weight). Also you need facilities to land and take off which will likely not be in your backyard. So you still need a car to get to and from the airport and that sort of makes short hops unfeasible since you might as well drive to your destination instead of the airport.

        I also doubt that trafic on the ground would reduce much since planes are probably going to be toys for the rich. Also the amount of trafic tends to grow if you increase the capacity of the infrastructure.
        • Wow, you doubt it eh? I mean, it must be absolutly IMPOSSIBLE to use this internet thingy to do any research.

          Yeah, all that work. Better to spout out your gut feeling than actually add something of value to the conversation.
        • I have a friend who owns a Mooney prop plane. Interior looks like a early 1980s Subaru, but it will make about 180mph.

          It gets about 20mpg, which is better than my car. (Granted, my car is a great deal more comfortable and has much higher carrying capacity, but I don't use that capacity most of the time).

          Also, remember that in the current urban world, a lot of time is spent in cars that are stopped in traffic, idling. That happens to be the highest level of pollution you can get. It might well be less polluting and more efficient to scrap the car and fly, as long as airspace doesn't get as full as freeways.

          The cool thing about airspace is that it's nearly unlimited vertically, so traffic jams are a lot harder to get. Imagine if your freeway had 50 levels and was dispersed all over the city instead of concentrated, and you'll see the seductive advantages of moving travel to the air.

        • I strongly doubt that planes can be as fuel efficient as cars

          Of course they won't, over the same distance. What skycars offer (among other things) is the ability to go point-to-point, so they're traveling a much shorter distance. Aircraft win when you consider *all* of the costs of road traffic (like roads themselves, which can easily cost a million bucks a mile for a four-lane highway.)

          I also doubt that trafic on the ground would reduce much since planes are probably going to be toys for the rich.

          Sure, they're going to be expensive at first, but so were cars. (Shoot, so were *horses*, if you look far enough back in history.)

          As for reducing ground traffic, I'd be pretty happy just get all those goddamned BMW's off of Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz mountains for a start.

  • What's the point? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by vscjoe ( 537452 ) on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @06:09AM (#2595005)
    I don't quite see the point of short-hop mass air transportation. A well-designed rail system is more efficient, less noisy, safer, and more environmentally friendly. And we could, gasp, move closer to where we work.

    To me, this sounds like NASA is grasping at straws trying to prove its relevance. But developing tech toys won't cut it, I suspect.

    • Re:What's the point? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by sigwinch ( 115375 )
      A well-designed rail system is more efficient, less noisy, safer, and more environmentally friendly.
      Rail is violently expensive. Profit margins tend to be low even in densely-populated areas.
      To me, this sounds like NASA is grasping at straws trying to prove its relevance. But developing tech toys won't cut it, I suspect.
      The problems that need to be solved for mass aviation are identical to many highly-relevant military problems: cruise missiles need to be able to autonomously navigate with 10 meter precision using terrain observation and inertial guidance (GPS simply doesn't *ever* work reliably), fighter/bombers need to land with a precision of a couple of meters on carriers, unmanned warplanes need to follow carefully-planned paths in the air, and so forth.

      Remember that speculative gold-plated bleeding-edge military R&D will be civilian bread & butter in twenty years. I think NASA is just beginning the obvious commercialization work. Even if it doesn't quite pan out for 'flying cars', the work directly applies to making conventional jet lines more efficient, safer, and more flexible.

      The aviation industry has a slow rate of improvement anyway. If you want to deploy massive improvements in 50 years, you need to start the preliminary work today. No, I'm not exaggerating. Aviation equipment and procedure life cycles are **EXTREMELY LONG** (where are <blink> tags when you need 'em?). For instance, the last B-52H heavy bomber was delivered in 1962, but they are expected to remain in service until 2035.

      • by vscjoe ( 537452 )
        Rail is violently expensive. Profit margins tend to be low even in densely-populated areas.

        Rail, when widely deployed, is intrinsically cheaper than air travel. What makes rail expensive relative to other modes of transportation in the US is poor utilization, low-volume production of the components, poor integration, lengthy and costly legal and political fights when trying to build new rail lines, and subsidies and failure to account for the true costs of automobiles and air travel.

        You can't "grow your way" into rail travel and hope that it's cost effective from its smallest beginnings to a large scale deployment. If you insist on incremental adoption of a technology, you automatically favor auto and air travel, which have much lower infrastructure costs and can be deployed one vehicle at a time. Unfortunately, the ultimate cost of having 300 million people rely on cars and airplanes are horrendous.

        The problems that need to be solved for mass aviation are identical to many highly-relevant military problems: cruise missiles need to be able to autonomously navigate with 10 meter precision using terrain observation and inertial guidance

        That seems like another good reason not to undertake that kind of development effort: I can do well without both personal aircraft and without another generation of cruise missiles.

        If you want to deploy massive improvements in 50 years,

        Actually, I'd prefer to see short and medium range air travel, as well as the personal automobile, be largely replaced in 50 years by rail, high speed ferries, automatic taxies, walk-up car rentals, pedestrian and bicycle zones, and telecommuting. Those are technologically far simpler and have clear benefits.

    • And we could, gasp, move closer to where we work.

      Better still, we could work closer to where we live, i.e. work at home. Lots of people spend nearly all day in a cube, sat in front of a computer. I can do that just as easily at home.


    • Re:What's the point? (Score:3, Informative)

      by jcr ( 53032 )
      A well-designed rail system is more efficient, less noisy, safer, and more environmentally friendly.

      You'd think so, wouldn't you?

      Unfortunately, railways are only more efficient if you think strictly in terms of the rolling resistance of steel wheels on steel rails. (Which, btw, is VERY noisy). There's a reason why passenger trains rarely make money: they're slow, they're inconvenient, rail maintenance is horrendously expensive, and let's not forget that when you get a large number of people together in a metal can, you have an ideal target for a Sarin gas attack.

    • NASA are using a civilian pretext (and possibly funding, also) as a front for military research and development. It's certainly not the first time -- consider all the scramjet research which they keep pretending is about civilian transport.
  • I know this might as a shock for you all, but don't you think that NASA needs to do some coordinating with the Virginia Department of Transportation? I mean, they've just sunk all this money into a 14 year project to help relieve traffic around the beltway interchange here in Springfield, Virginia...
    All kidding aside, seriously, think about the security issues you have here. By having little flying vehicles everywhere, we run into the problem of basically being able to let anyone take their car and get into airspace that is restricted. Sure, their might be klaxons going off and the vehicles computer might be saying, "You are in restricted airspace, please turn around" and sure you migth even have security features to change the course, but people will get around them. In my humble and very honest opinion it's a bad move.

    Furthermore, not even thinking about the aspect of terrorism through air cars, what about the problem of accidents? I know I know, I'm jumping ahead of what the technological specifications of this are, but think about how bad some of these accidents could turn into it. It wouldn't just be that there was a midair collission, but also that the wreckage might take out some neighborhood. Hmmm, I'm seeing problems here my friends...

    That's my story and I'm stickin' to it...
  • No way (Score:2, Insightful)

    by sluggie ( 85265 )
    I can't imagine that this is going to work in a sane way.
    Even in "professional" aviation navigating via GPS is only a BACKUP system, not the regular case. Still flying via VORs, NDBs and ISECs is essential.

    How should Mr. John Doe learn when to go around, or what to do in very bad weather conditions.. How are they going to keep the civil and this "private" aviation apart?

    How is Mr. John Doe going to pay for thes "driving/flying" licence (which won't be cheap, I'm sure)?

    How can we decide who is allowed to fly, how can we be sure he is not going to insure/kill others?

    Don't you think that with everybody and his brother/mother/etc using this system an reasonable amount of chaos is going to arise?
  • by alext ( 29323 ) on Wednesday November 21, 2001 @06:46AM (#2595059)
    Just as I was reading this thread, Richard Noble (the guy who took the land speed record a while ago) was on a radio phone-in over here telling people about his plan for independent travel using his Farnborough F1 [] plane. (Hmmm, hope the plane goes faster than Richard's web site...)

    He says:

    "...enter the Farnborough F1 air taxi, which flies point to point faster than a congested airliner and the Farnborough integrated Ops system, which will enable you to book your on demand travel zipcode to zipcode off the web. This means you can be picked up by a ground cab from your office or home, meet up with the F1 at a local airfield and arrive at your postcode destination 1000 miles away in under 4 hours door to door. That's about half the airline time and the best bit is yet to come. The whole activity is low stress with costs comparible to a business class airline fare and you need never go to a major airport again for short-haul travel!

    Key to all this is the importance of avoiding self deception. Constantly we check each other out - Have we got this right? Is there some fatal flaw in the project which means that it can never succeed? So far the only real problem is the very difficult finance - the rest is do-able. We can also take great confidence in the fact that NASA has come up with much the same ideas, though with different emphasis for their SATS (Small Aircraft Transportation System programme) which they believe will treble airspace travel capacity."

    Gotta love these plucky inventor types!
  • Planes aren't the design i'd be looking at for a "skycar". I think that if nasa really wants to do something new, maybe they'd look into hover crafts. I'm thinking end result like the Jetsons or the Fifth Element. They are possible (look at the hover trains being developed), just not probable any time soon for mass use. The problem with a plane is that if it crashes in air... its going one way, down. And as previously stated large objects falling from high altitudes usually do some damage. With the hover car, if it crashes... then well... it hovers right where it crashed. Of course I wouldn't want to step out and check the damage, might want to wait for the hover taxi for that ;-).
  • Have any of these flying cars yet broken ground? I can see the point of working out the rules before they do, but it will be a while yet. I don't think the Moller Skycar flies yet, and I haven't seen any others that do. When will we see one that really flies?

  • Come on people... lets not forget the hippies. They've been flying in cars for years, all fueled on organic chemicals.
  • Would weapons restrictions apply for those flying cars? If they become commonplace, terrorist need not bother with hijacking airplanes, just getting some cars and loading them full of casoline is enough of a missile for crashing into buildings.

    Furthermore, I can't see that those cars could be successfully flown by any less training that is currently needed for a pilots license. By successfull I mean flying without getting killed or destroying property.
  • The Atlantic Monthly published an article about new small, safer planes and what NASA plans to do with them. s. htm

    High quality stuff, as most of them articles there.

    New Book, same theme, same author: 5
  • I guess the whole thing about the dangers of this thing comes from the well known fact that if you step into the break while driving a normal car, you'll just stop and you're more or less save.
    If you decrease the speed of a plane to much you'll stop too, but you'll tumble down and be more or less dead...
  • An article a few months ago (and available
    on-line) has far more details: s. htm

    (Warning: long and fascinating!)

    Some quotes:

    "Today more than 80 percent of all airline traffic takes off from or lands at one of the fifty busiest airports, and most of it at the twenty-four major hubs. ... Weather delays in one part of the country have ripple effects thousands of miles away."

    "for the foreseeable future small planes will make a difference mainly if they constitute the operating fleet for a new national system of air taxis. A supply of inexpensive, safe, comfortable small planes, flown by hired pilots and available at rates comparable to today's coach air fares, could bring freedom and convenience to a broader share of the traveling public"

    "The most important all-weather component is a precision-landing system, which lets pilots safely descend for a landing even if clouds are within a few hundred feet of the ground. Some 1,200 of the nation's public airports already have precision-landing systems. Holmes argues that if landing systems and air-traffic-control services were installed at many more airports, they could collectively handle some 500 million takeoffs and landings a year (versus 37 million now) without building a single new runway"

    "Before the FAA will certify a plane, the manufacturers must show that a pilot can bring the plane out of a spin. The SR20 met this standard through a combination of spin resistance and the parachute, which would arrest the fall within 1,000 feet of where the handle was pulled--less altitude than planes typically lose when recovering from a spin."

    "in the summer of 1997 Williams was able to display a preview version of his new engine...achieved the nine-to-one thrust-to-weight ratio previously thought unattainable. The combined weight of the engines for a twin-engine jet could be less than 200 pounds. Suddenly it seemed practical to design a four-to-six-person jet that could land at small fields and would be relatively inexpensive to build."

    The article also talks about things like safety, new runways, pollution, etc. Good read.

    -- hsun
  • When everybody used to believe that at year 2000 cars would be obsolete, and we all would fly. tsc tsc tsc.

    But that'll be funny. I'll like to see what kind of ideas and/or design will show up. Will they be just like the 50's?

  • what "HAXOR Bin Ladin" could do with a few 'sploits of the control network and the entire morning rush-hour of flying cars?
    • which is why you would do a car to car distributed control system.
      something which should be done with planes today.
      • Lovely, Code Red for aircars and airplanes... (And no jokes about Windows, someone could have done the same to unpatched RedHat)

        The issue is that with life-critical systems, security and failure-modes have to be taken seriously . (I admit that I'm not too serious at times.)
  • A better idea (Score:2, Interesting)

    by slow_flight ( 518010 )
    This is all well and good, but really doesn't do much for the average commuter. People that have the inclination and ability to fly a plane are probably already doing so.

    What I would like to see instead are automated flying boxcars. The technology exists today to allow a completely automated (no pilots) flight from point A to point B using GPS, WAAS, and sophisticated autopilots. Lets use those technologies to build flying package delivery drones, and reduce the number of semis that are tearing up our highways and causing the majority of traffic snarls.

    These drones could be used to ferry routine cargo around at a much lower cost than FedEx, UPS, et al. These incumbents spend an absolute fortune on pilot salaries. The two pilots in any given FedEx jet are making in the range of $200k EACH! Multiply this by the hundreds or thousands of unionized pilots working for these organizations and it becomes clear why it costs so much to ship this way. Think about how many .coms went bust because people don't want to pay $10+ for shipping on top of purchase price and tax. Lower that cost to $2 or $3 and see if that works better!

    Given that time probably isn't of the absolute essence, it would be possible to route these flights over rural areas and avoid the liability risks of flying umnanned aircraft over crowded urban areas. Most of these flights would happen at night when those 5000 general aviation airports NASA is talking about are essentially deserted, so the risk of a collision between one of these drones and a piloted GA plane is minimal, and could probably be addressed with the same technologies NASA is working on. The aircraft themselves would be cheaper to manufacture than commercial aircraft since pressurization wouldn't be needed.
  • Ugh. Moller has been throwing designs at the wall for decades now. None have flown in to production. A closer look at his ideas reveal that we'd need some new theories in thermodynamics and aerodynamics to make his vehicles fly. When he publishes such a paper, I'll pay more attention.

    However, NASA's highway in the sky concept has been around for a while and only now has it become reasonably feasible for instrument rated private pilots to use.

    Most people don't realize how much thinking is involved for aircraft pilots to navigate, evaluate weather ahead, keep track of airfields, aircraft performance, air traffic control instructions, and so on. The workload is high enough that unless an airplane has a capable autopilot, many would not fly "single pilot IFR."

    So a highway in the sky concept is a big deal. Reducing pilot work-load means safety. Let's face it, it's hard enough to stay at peak performance for four hours straight, let alone four hours after a long day of activities on the ground.

    Not having to worry what frequencies to use next is a big reduction in work, not having to dig out the next chart along the way is a reduction in work, seeing weather depicted in 3D along the route, is a big deal. The less you have to think about where the air route, airports, weather, and you are, the more attention you can pay to how well the airplane is flying.

    Sandel already makes a nice electronic HSI display which is finding its way in to many higher end General Aviation aircraft. Garmin also makes a nice GPS+navigation radio combination with moving map displays that are extremely popular among pilots.

    However, flying an instrument approach to miniumus is still a lot of work and there is often little room for going stupid and making mistakes. NASA's concepts could help a great deal in this regard.

    I can hardly wait.
    • Ugh. Moller has been throwing designs at the wall for decades now. None have flown in to production.

      Very true. I have a Moller brochure from 1974, and his little VTOL craft was touted as "real soon now" all the way back then.

      It's not clear why he's having so much trouble getting off the ground. Things like the AvroCar and the Hiller Flying Platform flew in the 1950s. They were unstable and tough to fly, and before computerized stability control systems that made them useless. But that's not a big problem today.

  • I am a certified commercial pilot and air traffic controller. The problem with systems like this is that it is always easier than it sounds. No matter how nice that little LCD in the cockpit looks, flying is not going to be a "highway in the sky".

    As a pilot, I regularly fly into airports where the wind is gusting to 30+ knots, the ceiling is 500 feet off the ground, the turbluence is slamming me against my seatbelts, and the visibility is below a mile.

    If this alone didn't require a lot of skill, you have to constantly be alert for system failures, air traffic control instructions, and all relevant procedures.

    All the automation in the world can't prepare your average highway driver for what flying can really be like.

    This research will help pilots who are already fully certified reach their destinations easier and safer, but it will do nothing to have your average citizen flying the "highway in the sky".

  • Almost anyone can get a private plane these days for the cost of a luxury car.

    Check out kit planes. You buy the kit and assemble it yourself, taking anywhere from 1-5 years. Get it approved by the government and get your license and you're good to go.

    There are hundreds of small airfields all over the place that small aircraft owners use.

    Also check out the "Experimental Homebuilt Aircraft fair", known as Oshkosh. People from all over the US fly in for it, and the amount of planes using the airport are truly staggering. The line for landing goes far beyond the horizon.
  • When I was a boy, thirty-five years ago, Frontier Airlines flew into my hometown, pop. 12,000. I can only assume that this was not exceptional at the time.

    What has changed? Highways have gotten a lot better. Airlines have been deregulated. High tech safety/navigation equipment have made airports much more costly to run.

    I kind of like the idea of small airports being used again by normal travelers, but I'm not convinced that it can happen without huge government spending.
  • This scares the bejeezus out of me!

    I'm trying to get my certificate to be a private pilot. I read the article stating that the computer would control the planes in 'non-radar' space and 'non-towered' this thing going to have speech recognition and natural language recognition as well?

    What I'm getting at, is that the above airspaces pretty much control themselves. If I'm departing from a non-towered airfield, I announce via this thing going to be able to track and avoid other aircraft that are being flown the old fashioned way?

  • I am a postgrad working on my doctoral and am involved in the Human Factors issues of SATS. Many are worried about the impacts of such an endeavor, and rightly so. Especially with the events of 911, one wonders if this is feasible at all. There are two sides to this issue: one side is that SATS, and GA in general, is dead; the other says that, due to the currently inherent security issues with commercial transportation, SATS and GA will grow exponentially (i.e., no knowledge of who you're flying with or how intense the security scrutiny of others' baggage causing droves of travellers who wish to have SOME control to seek out alternatives). Being on the Human Factors side of things in SATS, I am more concerned with the interactions that will occur with respect to the 'human in the loop': the displays (visual or auditory), human performance in such things as terminal area procedures and separation maintenance, and investigations into optimal cockpit and aircraft design. Make no mistake: we have (or soon will have) the technology to do this. Surely, some aspects, such as ATC issues and flight path security (i.e., flying over sensitive areas), still need resolving. But, with the data gleaned from the AGATE research and others, we are confident that this will become reality. Current plans are for a demonstration of a fully-operational system, limited to a specific test area, in 2005. Time will tell if this system sells with the public, but I think it will. Witness the increases in chartered aircraft, both for business and pleasure. Several aircraft currently exist and are flying that contain SATS technology (Cirrus, Glasair). Consortia involved in SATS (Florida, Virginia, and a conglomeration of others in Baltimore and Ohio) are feverishly working out testing and experimental designs that produce the data that the FAA and NASA need to make the decisions to continue. I am excited about this, very excited. You should be, too.
  • I'm not in the U.S. I'm getting "(113) No route to host" errors. Ok, next step: try Google []. What? They're not caching the pages!

    Does that mean what I think it means? Anyone?

  • This Atlantic Magazine article [] by James Fallows delineates the history behind the new NASA effort.

    Essentially, a lot of people have realized that the currrent domestic air transportation system is flawed, primarily because "hub" airports force us to spend more time getting to the airport, getting on the plane, and then driving from the airport to our actual destination than we need to. In fact, much of the time we'd save time by just driving.

    So in order to make domestic air travel actually efficient, NASA and others are working to reinvent the system. If you're at all interested in the future of domestic air travel, read the article. Fallows does his homework, and it's a good read.

  • I'm a bit of a New Urbanist, so I can immediately see how this idea can go BADLY wrong. Two points (among many) that you should consider...

    1. People invariably tend to live around an hour's commute from work. Many studies have shown this. When the highway was invented, it didn't make it easier to live in the city and travel between them - it led millions of people to move farther away and for cars to become the dominant mode of transportation, with all it's ills. The same has happened with rail lines. In all cases, it means that much more space has to be devoted to providing for the transportation network - roads, parking lots, gas stations, etc. If you have people commuting by plane, you won't be letting people live in the country and work in the city - you'll be turning the entire nation into one big suburb.

    2. No matter how much of a resource you produce, people will inevitably find a way to consume all of it. This rule applies to commodities like oil and food, as well as things like road space. Think building another highway will solve your traffic concerns by relieving the other roads? Think again. I just drove 400 miles to and from my brother's house this past weekend, and let me tell you the traffic was RIDICULOUS. There were jams in the middle of nowhere, at all times of day. Granted it is just before a holiday, but still. This leads me to point 2b: The most important feature of a transportation system is not its capacity, but how well it performs at maximum capacity. Roads perform terribly - they slow to a crawl and stop as soon as accidents occur. Rail, OTOH, is a little crowded in the cars but otherwise functions perfectly for the most part. How will individual air travel stack up? I think I can guess...
  • this is what I want, plus you can put a parachute on the whole assemply.
    Personal VTOL []

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