Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Flying car fantasy looks like it could become reality

Posted by John Keller

When I was a kid it was the fantasy of everyone I knew to find a way to fly, be it with a rocket belt we saw on TV, or better yet, to have a flying car that could take off, as well as roll along the highways.

Now it seems that fantasy could be coming true.

Terrafugia of Woburn, Mass., is ready to market the Transition flying car, after receiving "light sport" aircraft classification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

The Terrafugia Transition, a two-seat combination light aircraft and street-legal automobile, can travel at normal highway speeds on pavement, and at 115 miles per hour when flying. It can take off from airports or long flat stretches after folding down its wings and engaging its backward-facing propeller.

At a cost of about $200,000, anyone willing to put in at least 20 hours flying time to quality can buy one, fly it from place to place, and store it in an ordinary garage.

I can't help thinking, though, that this fantasy-come-true is most likely a combination of poor car and even worse airplane. Just goes to show that you ought to be careful what you wish for.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft: coming to an airport near you

Posted by John Keller

Commercial airliners may be on the verge of a transformation every bit as significant as the switch from propeller to jet power, and once again likely will demonstrate the ability of air passengers to adapt quickly to new technologies that many say they will never accept.

What I'm talking about is the likely future of unpiloted, automated passenger aircraft. Yeah, yeah, I've heard it before -- nobody will fly on a plane without a human pilot. We've all heard the joke about the automated passenger aircraft on which nothing can go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong.

Yet while it's true that passengers want to get to their destinations safely and with peace of mind, what the unpiloted passenger aircraft skeptics underestimate is how much passengers want to get to their destinations. Period. Get 'em where they want to go, when they want to get there, and they'll adapt.

Case in point: the Boeing 707 jetliner. The 707, developed in the 1950s, was one of the first commercially successful passenger jets, and dominated commercial aviation during the 1960s and into the '70s. When its design first went onto the drawing boards, nay-sayers said passengers would never board an aircraft that didn't have propellers.

Those in the aviation industry who believed this put their money behind other passenger aircraft designs of the day, such as the three-tailed Lockheed Constellation. Quick show of hands: how many remember the 707, and how many remember the Constellation? I thought so. Some of the first 707 passengers may have been a little nervous about seeing no propellers on the wings, but evidently that didn't last long.

We'll see the same thing when we see the first unpiloted passenger jets, and that could be sooner than you think. New Scientist has a story out online this week entitled Drone alone: how airliners may lose their pilots. It points out research projects on both sides of the Atlantic to find ways for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to share civil airspace with passenger jets.

It's only a matter of time, the article points out, before researchers can find a way for UAVs to share airspace with passenger jets, which will lead to unpiloted cargo aircraft, and finally to unpiloted passenger aircraft. Would you as a passenger fly in a plane without a pilot?

Let me tell you, if this approach led to fewer delays at the airport, I'd be on unpiloted planes in a heartbeat. I'm betting you would, too.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

What's backup plan if satellites go down on NextGen air traffic management system?

Posted by John Keller

The NextGen air traffic management system represents a revolutionary advancement in air traffic control, as the future system will use satellite navigation and guidance to enable commercial jetliners to fly not only straight lines to their destinations, but also to control their trajectories and flight profiles based on the performance of each aircraft to save time, fuel, and other operating costs.

But what happens if the satellites go down? This isn't out of the realm of possibility. A nuclear weapon detonated in low-Earth orbit could destroy or disable upwards of 80 percent of the navigation satellites on which not only NextGen air traffic management, but also any kind of Global Positioning System (GPS)-based navigation depends.

It worries me that countries we might consider to be rogue nations -- I'm thinking of Iran and North Korea here -- either have or are close to developing nuclear weapons and the means to boost these into Earth orbit and explode them there, taking out most of the communications, navigation, and home entertainment satellites residing there. Let's face it, it's only a matter of time before terrorist organizations get their hands on nukes capable of doing this job.

So assuming that we will in a short time have a primarily satellite-based air traffic control system, what do we do if the worst happens?

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Washington has considered this possibility and has a backup plan in place, says Ronald Stroup, chief systems engineer at the FAA, who made his comments today at the Avionics USA conference and trade show in San Diego.

Stroup told conference attendees that the FAA has plans to continue maintaining its network of ground-based radar stations -- perhaps not all of them, but enough to do the job. In addition, FAA experts have plans to extend the ranges of ground-based radar systems to continue with air traffic control if satellite-based systems malfunction.

The FAA also plans to maintain its distance measuring equipment (DME) navigation systems so commercial aircraft can continue navigating from place to place using ground-based radio beacons. It might not be as efficient as the NextGen system, but at least we'll still have a functioning air traffic management system.

Finally, Stroup says the FAA plans to maintain radio-based voice communications to relay orders, directives, and crucial flight data to commercial aircraft in the event of a disaster that renders satellite-based systems inoperable.

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