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DARPA, US Marines team on proper flying car project

Blade Runner style sky-buggy Humvee/Jeep/Prius combo

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Actually not a flying Humvee but a flying Prius

DARPA also seem to be looking at a Toyota Prius -esque electrical hybrid transmission between the prime mover - gas turbine or trendy low-maintenance heavy fuel engine - and the actual whirlers and wheels. This could help a lot with making the machine quiet, and the supplementary "advanced batteries" might deliver the peak power needed for VTOL or hover, topping themselves up at times of lower demand such as forward flight or ground driving.

Alternatively a "jump takeoff" system such as that on the Carter Copter might use inertial energy stored in spinning fans rather than electricity held in batteries to make a vertical liftoff - or both, or something else altogether might be employed.

Transformer TX is a tall order, but DARPA want it filled pronto - and they don't expect to spend much money either (not much money in a US military flying things context, anyway). A prototype intended to show the feasibility of a later production model should be in ground and flight tests no later than 2015, and cost no more than $43m plus some smaller, <$1m sums paid to develop necessary subsystem technologies.

That said, costs are to be reduced by the fact that test flights needn't be carried out with people aboard:

To mitigate the costs associated with flight certification within this program, the protoype will not be required to be flown with human occupants. Instead, automated flight within a military controlled airspace where executable scripts and/or remote control is permitted will be the recommended approach to demonstrate flight performance. It is expected that VTOL, transition between vertical and forward flight, cruise flight, ground travel, and vehicle reconfiguration will be demonstrated ... Full mission cycle demonstration is not expected, but representative critical transition elements of operation (e.g., VTOL, cruise, ground travel) will be expected with an extrapolation of fuel/energy consumption to show the ability to meet the four representative mission cycles.

Like DARPA's most famous past success (the internet), the Transformer TX would perhaps be even more significant in the civilian world than in the military. Unlike existing personal aircraft such as light planes, Terrafugia Transitions, motorised parachutes etc, it would be pretty much a Jetsons or Blade Runner flying car.

It would genuinely be able to lift off and set down in rooftops and streets, and quiet enough to do so without violating noise ordinances. It would be able to drive properly on the ground. Its robotic autopilot would remove the need for expensive, perishable piloting and instrument-rating skills which is such a burden for today's private pilots. Automated operation, in conjunction with automated air-traffic systems of the sort now in development, would have the potential to eliminate the destructive human errors which could make a sky full of flying cars undesirable.

Better still, a machine which had only cost $43m to reach flying prototype stage would also have the potential to be cheap enough, if mass produced, for fairly ordinary people to own one.

Like all DARPA projects Transformer TX is unlikely to succeed at all. Even if US Marine rifle companies one day do ride to war in handy four-man sky jeeps rather than cumbersome choppers or Humvees, that doesn't necessarily mean flying cars for all any more than Harriers or Ospreys did.

But we can still hope - and we here on the Reg flying-car desk will certainly be following the Transformer TX project with interest as long as it lasts. ®

Bootnote

*A US Marine rifle company has three rifle platoons and a weapons platoon plus headquarters personnel, nowadays often supplemented under ECO doctrine. Under the "rule of three" each platoon has three squads, each squad has three fire-teams and each fire-team is made up of three Marines plus a team leader. All up a USMC rifle company will have between 160 and 200 personnel, somewhat larger than a typical British Army rifle company or Royal Marine close-combat company. Despite this the US Marine company is commanded by a Captain while equivalent British units are commanded by Majors.

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