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. Not 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.