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DARPA at work on 'Transformer TX', a proper flying car

'Morphing' robo hover-Prius to run on 'ring motors'

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Operates without much human piloting = can do without humans altogether = safer than normal cars?

At a wild guess, "morphing vehicle body" might mean extendable wings or some other means of generating lift from forward motion in flight, allowing the TX to cruise from place to place economically using less thrust while charging up batteries or ultracapacitors drained by a vertical liftoff. "Ring motors" would see the ducted fans driven by machinery located around the outside of the blades, built into the duct walls rather than at their hubs.

DARPA seem to hint that the "advanced flight controls and flight management systems" would be so sophisticated as to allow the TX to fly unmanned if required. They say that "[One-person] TX vehicles could be dispatched for downed airman recovery or for evacuating injured personnel from difficult to access locations".

This makes sense: an autopilot system so good that an ordinary soldier could fly the TX would be effectively capable of unmanned operations anyway. Heavily automated controls and flight-management would also help to counteract the inevitable human errors among drivers/pilots which make the roads so dangerous today and which could make skies full of flying cars undesirable tomorrow.

DARPA also make it clear that the TX would be very suitable for operations in built-up areas:

The TX vehicle is intended to make roads irrelevant for military small unit manoeuvres. These units can use TX air vehicles to fly over obstacles or impassible terrain, avoid ambushes and improvised explosive devices ... or to resupply isolated small units. Four-man versions would be suitable for enhanced company operations concepts which would allow the soldier/team to see the situation and pick the best place to “drop in” for urban operations.

That seems to be pretty much a clean sweep on the proper-flying-car checklist: it's quiet, it hovers, it's so automated that ordinary humans can use it without undue danger to themselves or others. That's a proper Jetsons flying car, if it can be built.

As DARPA say, such machines could indeed have revolutionary effects on small-unit tactics. One- to four-person air buggies able to hop over buildings and fly around towns below rooftop height (or ten thousand feet up) would no doubt get shot down or blown up on occasion, but they'd usually be harder to nail than ordinary one- to four-person military units.

But, like the internet (perhaps DARPA's most famous invention) you can see the civilian applications reaching further and faster here than the military ones. Assuming the technology ever gets off the ground, anyway (ahem). All that's scheduled for next year is "trade studies, preliminary design studies ... and modelling". ®

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