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NASA comp fails to produce flying cars

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Analysis A NASA-sponsored competition designed to encourage the development of personal aircraft was won on Saturday by a modified Slovenian aircraft piloted by an Australian.

The winning Pipistrel Virus. Nice, but no flying car.

The inaugural Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) challenge event was held at the Charles Schultz Sonoma County airport in California last week. PAVs aren't proper science-fiction flying cars - at least, not yet. They aren't supposed to be able to lift off vertically or hover. Rather, the idea is to produce a relatively normal-looking light aeroplane which is very quiet, fuel-efficient, and can operate from a very short runway. This could, perhaps, be achieved for a price that ordinary-ish people could afford.

That set of capabilities would reduce several of the problems which have historically meant that we don't all own our own planes and use them for routine journeys. There might be a runway in every neighbourhood; they'd be normal road features, like roundabouts or lay-bys. PAVs being so quiet and only needing such short runways, nobody would mind this.

You could park your PAV in your garage or outside your house with the wings folded. In the morning, you'd jump into the PAV, taxi it round the corner to the nearest runway - and up, up and away. No gridlock or motorways for you. You'd set down close to your destination. Shopping malls, big corporate campuses, inner-city car/PAVparks and such would have their own runways. You'd park and do your thing.

All this is to ignore a remaining huge snag. Flying a light aircraft requires more training and skill than driving a car, even in ideal weather in uncrowded skies. A basic pilot's licence requires dozens of hours of instruction and allows one to fly only in benign weather and airspace which is mostly empty. A full instrument rating, enabling a pilot to operate in low visibility and congested skies, is a much bigger deal - but without this, most people would hardly ever be able to use their PAVs.

PAV advocates' proposed solution to this is a much more advanced autopilot and instrumentation fit. This would mean that a pilot in cloud or fog never had to learn how to fly his aircraft manually without visual cues, watching a selection of counterintuitive dials while being directed through traffic by a human ground controller over a voice channel. Rather, he or she would use "synthetic vision", a screen showing the terrain below, other aircraft in the sky, and probably a virtual "pipe" or "tunnel" in the sky, down which the air-traffic computers had routed the plane. In normal circumstances the PAV would fly itself down this pipe automatically, perhaps even landing itself autonomously at the destination strip.

Autopilot and glass-cockpit gear like this does exist, but it isn't small or cheap, and the automated air-traffic infrastructure which would let hundreds of thousands of PAVs fly about simultaneously above a large conurbation - bad weather or good, never mind - isn't even close to existing. It could be built, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be. It's also more than possible that if it was built, PAVers of the future might often find themselves circling interminably in airborne traffic jams just as if they were sitting on the freeway: though the use of three dimensions and many runways rather than few could mitigate the airborne gridlock.

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