Can DARPA get a flying car off the ground?

GCN Lab director John Breeden is glad to see that DARPA is putting serious research into developing a flying car, like we were promised by futurists decades ago.

I have to admit that one of the biggest disappointments of modern life for me is the lack of flying cars. But now it seems that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is putting some serious money behind making the science fiction dreams of children everywhere come true.

OK, really, no kids will probably get too close to one of these babies, unless it’s at an Army recruiting fair. That’s assuming one ever gets built. But DARPA wants prototype flying cars ready for testing by 2015, as revealed in this solicitation.

What DARPA wants is a four-passenger vehicle with a 1,000-pound capacity and rugged sport utility vehicle-like features. The car should also be able to take off vertically without a runway, fly up to 250 miles on a single tank of gas, and reach an altitude of 10,000 feet. It should cost no more than $55 million dollars. Oh, and anyone who can drive a car should be able to operate the new vehicle on the ground or in the air, with no real special training required.

They are calling their new idea the Transformer project, which brings to mind movies with vehicles transforming into giant fighting robots, though that’s probably a project for another time, or perhaps relegated to the black ops section of their budget.

If the flying car sounds fantastic, don’t forget that DARPA is prone to a bit of dreaming, all in the name of building a better mousetrap—when that mousetrap involves killing enemies of the United States. They allotted $6 million in their 2011 budget to the creation of “synthetic organisms” that can live forever or be killed in an instant when a genetic kill switch is activated. And no, I’m not making that up either.

But back to flying cars. The problem with the concept of a flying car is that ground vehicles and aircraft are different animals. Aircraft need to be streamlined and airworthy whereas ground vehicles, especially SUV-like ones like DARPA wants to use for flying, are more concerned with things like shock absorption. The type of equipment needed for ground use, plus the entire earthbound drive train, is nothing but a lot of extra weight to an aircraft.

Then again, the military actually had a flying vehicle as far back as 1957 with the Piasecki VZ-8 Airgeep, which was supposed to be, well, a flying jeep. The VZ-8 however was designed to operate mostly in the air and not much on the ground.

From a technological point of view, there isn’t much reason why we couldn’t have a flying car. Computers could certainly handle most of the flight characteristics for a pilot, as is done in the ungainly F-117 Nighthawk Stealth fighters. The problem is more physically designing a car/aircraft hybrid that works as well as a car or airplane that’s dedicated to just being itself. Even getting a hybrid that’s in the same ballpark will be tough. And I’m not sure $55 million is quite enough to make that happen.

But we can always dream. One of my favorite modern song writers, David Wilcox, sums up my feelings perfectly in his song "(What Happened to My) Modern World":

In the future that we used to imagine
The one they pictured in the old magazines
Their tomorrow-land is so old fashioned
A delusion of the modern dream
But they had a skyway to the city towers
And we're still bumping over rock and tar
I've been crawling down the freeway for hours
I want my fusion-powered flying car

You can listen to his song for free, and dream along with me of what the world would be like if only we had fusion-powered flying cars. I’ll take a red one.