The Flying Car May Be a Helicopter

It’s looking to me like the dream of a personal short range land and takeoff almost anywhere aircraft is actually going to be a helicopter. ┬áNot exactly the flying car of science fiction but a machine that can hop over the ground traffic and obstacles that we all want to avoid.

The reason I believe a helicopter can now be the personal aircraft for the many is MEMs. The same technology that makes it possible for copter drones to essentially fly themselves also makes the personal helicopter practical.

Helicopters are the hardest aircraft to master, particularly in the hover. And it is hovering that makes a helicopter useful and valuable.

I have never tried to ride a unicycle, but I imagine it would be much like hovering a helicopter. Every control input during a hover, or the slightest puff of wind, upsets the equilibrium of forces necessary to hover. Any movement of the control cyclic requires a balancing input from the collective lever and anti-torque pedals. And the power must also be adjusted.

Learning to hover was the hardest thing I have done in an aircraft. For me, and most, the key is to not think about the control requirements. They must become instinctive. If you take time to think about what is happening and which control to move to correct the situation, it’s too late.

But hovering a helicopter is nearly child’s play for MEMs. And that’s why the drone copters can zoom around under excellent control even though the operator is probably not experienced at all in controlling a helicopter.

MEMs are micro electronic mechanical devices that can sense motion and can be linked together to measure attitude and velocity. MEMs are what make the non-moving electronic gyros that are key to flat glass avionics systems possible.

In a copter application MEMs detect movement in all directions and work with a fast computer chip to develop a correction command to stabilize the craft. Thanks to MEMs a copter can automatically maintain a hover until the pilot asks it to move in one direction or another, or up or down.

Helicopters have had stability augmentation systems (SAS) that aid the human pilot for decades. Many large helicopters are almost unflyable with the SAS turned off. But SAS has been complicated and very expensive. Thanks to the very low cost of MEMs small multi-rotor copters can fly themselves in terms of knowing what control inputs are necessary to move in the desired direction, or to hover.

As far as I know it hasn’t been done yet, but it’s easy to see how a copter drone could be scaled up to carry one or two people over relatively short distances. A battery may hold enough power for a typical hop over a congested urban area. The pilot would need no more training or skill than a car driver.

A personal multi-rotor copter won’t be cheap, but compared to conventional helicopters the costs could be attractive to many. The multi-rotor technology that really only works with automatic control fits in a smaller ground footprint then a conventional single main rotor design so there would be more options to “park” it at the destination.

Several European groups are already studying the personal “automated” copter and the larger challenges appear to be crowding in the sky, collision avoidance, parking room, and maybe most difficult of all, public opposition to a bunch of small copters zooming over their homes and patios.

The flying car is so illusive because it must both fly and drive. An automated personal copter only needs to fly because it can land within walking distance of the destination–the parking lot. And thanks to MEMs that make drones possible, almost anybody could fly an automated copter.

Everybody who has predicted development of the flying car has been wrong so far. What are my chances on the personal automated copter becoming a reality? I think, thanks to electronics developments which have been so hard to predict and have turned out to be so much more capable than we have imagined, my odds could be as good as even money.


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23 Responses to The Flying Car May Be a Helicopter

  1. Bill Berson says:

    I agree with this blog article ( finally!)
    A fellow RC club member let me fly his small quad copter. It was almost foolproof. It had a switch to make it come back and land at the exact launch site automatically. Cost $400.
    For full size transportation, the problem of high speed downwash winds kicking up debris remains for any compact VTOL. A low disc loading would help, but that requires large discs.

  2. stan sanders says:

    You just described my Verticraft. Details can be seen at
    Stan Sanders

  3. Sarah A says:

    OK so MEM technology might make the personal helicopter easy to fly but the cost will never come down to the point that it will be widly practical. This dream of the personal helicopter started way back in the 50′s (or was that the 40′s) with all sorts of rosey predictions for the future and if by some miricle it had come to be, it would have resulted in a nightmare of crowding in the skies. Just imigine all those Bozo’s you currently share the freeways with taking to the air with everyone heading off in their own direction, all the mid airs that could occur. Even with the influx of modern technology to deconflict the numerous flightpaths it would still be a white knuckle experience in any major city and its surrounding suburbs. Yes the ide is a nice dream and modern technology can make the implementation possible but it will really end up being a nightmare, not to mention a tremendous growth oppertunity for the FAA and the NTSB. At least we have a blog subject this week that has some relevence to Sport Aviation after a long pause, a nice stimulator of relevent discussion.

    • stan sanders says:

      The Verticraft, described in, will be totally automated and fly on a near infinite number of non intersecting flight trajectories making the probability of collision near zero. The Bozos will just be riding along as well as the” texters” and DUI candidates
      that cause accidents in non automated automobiles.

    • Bill Tomlinson says:

      Certainly is good to see something relevant to sport aviation.

  4. Kayak Jack says:

    The limitation is not technological – it’s human. Two out of three drivers are poor drivers, and the third one is still in training to be poor. (A slight exaggeration, but only slight.)

    I do NOT want the horde of unaware idiots in the air with me, thank you very much. At that time, driving on the ground will become safer.

  5. Carl Belt says:

    Just what we need! We have drunks driving around in cars, now they will be flying over our heads!!

  6. Bill says:

    Interesting read Mac… the operational environment doesn’t sound overwhelming. There are ample traffic corridors in most major metro’s that could accommodate the volume without privacy or noise concerns…namely the 100-500 feet directly over existing freeways. As for the hordes of “idiots” some commenters allude to my bet is pricing and lift constraints would keep this technology constrained to relatively small numbers of 1% ers for the first generations of airframes. A robust licensing, exam and regulatory regimen (not unlike our current FAR’s) could keep the operating environment professional and risks acceptable to the non flying community.

    George Jetson here we come… best bet for early adoption Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas… lots of good weather, bad traffic and large metro areas to cover with plenty of well heeled early adopters. Now I just need a robot dog to ride with me in my Chevy Cobalt Hi-Lift Hybrid robocopter. Just hope the ignition switch doesn’t jam the MEM’s!

  7. Douglas Manuel says:

    Nice concept, but what about Class B airspace & TFRs (especially the 30 mile pop-up type)?

  8. Thomas says:

    Certainly it’s been done:

    They’re working on more “polished” versions now.

  9. Kayak Jack says:

    Here’s another thought. Let’s buy them and give them to lawyers and politicians. The high loss rate would not be mourned.

    OK, serious – have any of these copters grown out of the toy stage to something hauling people? I’m very impressed with the toys, but haven’t seen anything large yet. Maybe I’m behind the power curve on seeing them.

  10. Carter says:

    Hi Mac,
    You still need to be able to drive it when you get to where your going. So it has to be car like in order to have enough utility to make people want to buy it. George Jetson didn’t have a pilots license, nor did he need one. Nor will the new owners need one in the flying future. Why, how is this possible? Because you’ll just tell it where you want to go and the computer will figure out the best way to go and take into account all the airspace restrictions along the flight path, including driving it to where you can take off. In fact like the model RC helo’s of today, you won’t fly it, the computer will. Avoiding other aircraft will be accomplished via onborrd ADS-B collision avoidance equipment that can track hundreds of potential conflicts.
    Lets say your taking off from a wooded area and you have to maneuver to avoid the trees to fly. Forgetabout it! Just like the new cars of today, those car sensors will be adapted so that your onboard computer knows, the trees, power poles, etc., are there and adjusts your flight path to avoid them. Pop up TFR? No problema, again the TSA issues the TFR and instantly the computer adapts to the new TFR restricted airspace.
    Same with weather, the computer can receive XM/ADS-B, weather and other than icing conditions the cars will fly in zero zero weather. In fact you will be safer than driving on roads in foggy weather due to not being confined to driving on a surface street or highway. Your insurance should be less expensive due to fewer drunk driver threats, autonomous maneuvering, no dogs, cats, pig, deer collisions entering the airspace. etc. Collisions with pedestrians will be less frequent. Less idiling in traffic, faster trips, less fuel used, more time for your family, less stress, and best of all, the FAA cant regulate it. What? Simple. The FAA can’t adjust to new technology fast enough due to its cumbersome buracratic and legal structure. Basically it is inflexible and can’t adapt or change fast enough. Look at its current debacle with the courts regarding UAVs. If, the FAA, attempts to challenge or manipulate this new transportation system the courts will overrule its new regulations, and in fact the courts will tie it up in litigation for years while everyone buys new flying vehicles. Right now, a few thousand pilots are irritated by the FAA, can you imagine half the population of Los Angeles being irritated by the FAA because they are being prevented from owning and flying one of these vehicles? When you have six million voters pissed off because a government bureau won’t let them fly one of these cars, due to dubious threats of safety of flight issues, they will be drowned out by more reasonable folk who are not concerned about their FAA careers. Also you’ll have a choice, some will fly fast up to 400nm range and some, will be more helicopter like. Dirt cheap electronics and light weight materials are making this affordable. In fact I forsee an increase in pilot starts due to this new transportation option. Many of the vehicles will be all electric. So its a bright future for personal aviation. Carter

  11. stan sanders says:

    Carter has it exactly right, the Verticraft described at will cost about $50,000 if mass produced. It is battery powered and effectively solar/wind powered for up to 84 miles or nearly 3 times the average daily distance traveled by current ground transportation.

  12. Mark Forss says:

    How About the e-volo? And instead of just batteries how about a tiny gas turbine – electric generator which solved the train power problem years ago?

  13. Larry Zetterlind says:

    Very interesting….but I thought the idea of a flying car was so the VFR pilot could still travel by ground when the weather was to bad to fly.

    • stan sanders says:

      The automobile is obsolete. The future of ground transportation is automated cars which will prevent deaths due to collisions but not starvation from being trapped in the giant automated parking lot caused by the 2 billion population increase over the next 20 years. The automated Verticraft can fly on a near infinite number of non intersecting flight trajectories with a probability of collision near zero.

  14. Dennis Wolfers says:

    I’ve been thinking along these lines for the past few years, and believe it’s inevitable. However, I don’t see people flying (or driving) themselves so much as choosing a destination, and letting the automation aviate, navigate, and communicate for them. Without that level of automation, the burden of situational awareness would be too great for the majority of the populace. I can’t imagine such a system working unless the majority of vehicles are a broadly shared resource, available on-demand, but not personally owned. Of course, this utopian transportation ideal awaits the development of a safe, light-weight, extreme-density, easily-replenished energy storage system.

  15. Kayak Jack says:

    If I understand Dennis correctly, he’s suggesting a sky helicopter bus. That, I could see. But – millions of scatterbrained drivers in the air! I’d revert to traveling in tunnels.

    Technology is not the barrier – people are the barrier.

    • Dennis Wolfers says:

      Not a buss. More like a fractional ownership scheme with personal-sized vehicles. With complete automation, they could replace the automobile for most, if not all short to medium range door-to-door travel.

      Speaking of busses, though, there is no technological barrier to airliners being completely automated; only pilot unions and public perception are delaying that eventuality.

  16. Kayak Jack says:

    With all due respect, I’d feel a lot more comfortable with a qualified pilot on board to monitor all that stupendous technology. “Leak-proof tanks do, and fool-proof things aren’t.”

    Is the human still fallible? Absolutely. But, when a mouse or a drop of condensation gets somewhere inside of that stupendous technology that they shouldn’t be – it’s nice to have a trained hand around.

  17. Ken says:

    It can work, but only in a perfect world. Unfortunately when more than an handful of humans are involved in something, they WILL screw it up big time. Humans don’t do technology/complication very well. We as a species are better off with less of this kind of thing, not more.

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