America has long had an obsession with the flying automobile, but now the Pentagon may be getting involved. Wired.com's Spencer Ackerman took a look at one man's optimistic proposal to use flying cars to dodge roadside bombs. —Ed.
Big military problem: Unfriendly forces hide bombs in the roads of Afghanistan, Iraq and, inevitably, future war zones. What to do about it? Well, obviously: Hit a button on the back of a steering wheel and vertically lift your vehicle off the road, into the sky, and out of the range of an improvised explosive device. Why didn't the big brains at the Pentagon's anti-roadside bomb squad think of that?
Probably because flying cars are the El Dorado of geekery: promised to us, like jetpacks, only to remain the elusive bounty of a cruel, ever-distant future. (Except for the Terrafugia Transition, that is.)
But a small new company called Logi AeroSpace thinks it can take us to the promised land. Meet the Tyrannos, a four-wheeled car that relies on four small rotary wings for its vertical lift and sounds like a herald of Galactus.
Larry Ortega, the Nebraska company's CEO and a retired Air Force major, doesn't have a prototype yet. But he's got something he calls "shrouded propeller" technology. His partner and chief engineer, Californian Robert Bulaga of Trek Aerospace — part owner of Logi, a company that Bulaga and Ortega started just for the Tyrannos project — "invented a way to twist a wing into a circle around propellers," he says, allowing more lift capability using "half the propeller area of anyone else."
Um, OK. How exactly they've shaped the shrouds around the propellers is a "trade secret," Ortega confides, but it sounds kind of like a ducted fan, like you'd see in a hovercraft.
Of course, the Tyrannos looks a bit like the Fantasti-car during the present design phase. But the whole idea is that it should be practical. Ortega aims to build the Tyrannos "the size of an SUV" so it can seat four and fit in your garage. Well, if you take the wings and the tailboom off, as Ortega intends.
And that also means that if you can drive a car, you can fly one. "We want to eliminate all that training" for pilots, Ortega says. According to the company's specs, a driver will see a simulated "highway" on the windshield, complete with virtual road simulations indicating direction.
Press an "Up" paddle on the back of the wheel and the Tyrannos "literally starts climbing in the air," Ortega says. "You see that road" — simulated on the windshield — "start to lift up" and so you follow it, using the pedals and the steering wheel, as if in an arcade racing game, to stay on course.
You're not supposed to be flying very high: 200 to 500 feet, optimally — "maybe 1,000," Ortega says. (The twin towers of World Trade Center, RIP, were somewhat under 1,400 feet, to give some perspective.) It's a car, after all, designed to weigh about 1,800 pounds with a payload of 1,100 extra pounds so it can take off from a rest position.
Run it down an 180-foot track before it takes off, and you can add about 750 more pounds on board. That should be enough for four soldiers or marines and their gear. Accordingly, its lightness means it's going to have survivability issues.
So imagine being in a tactical situation — some kind of combat scenario — and flipping a switch, and your car just shoots up in the air like a rotary-wing version of the A-Team van. You dodge the IED that's trying to disable your vehicle.
But you're going to need a member of your unit to fire his or her rifle at the bad guys, because the Tyrannos isn't going to have a gun mounted on it. What's more, Ortega intends to build it to be "survivable for bullets," with "as much protection as Army helmets." In other words, fire a rocket-propelled grenade at it, and it's a futuristic flying casket.
But it's not reporters that Ortega has to convince. It's Darpa, the Pentagon's mad-science division. In April, as Danger Room's Katie Drummond reported, Darpa put out a way-ambitious request for proposals for what it called its Transformer (TX) program, basically inviting engineers to dream up a flying car again. Or, as Darpa put it, give the military an "unprecedented capability to avoid traditional and asymmetrical threats while avoiding road obstructions" through vertical takeoff and landing.
Truly more than meets the eye, and worth about $54 million total, split between a few companies. Logi AeroSpace pitched the Tyrannos about a month ago.
If Darpa thinks the tech checks out and the company's bid makes sense, then it'll release the cash to let Logi AeroSpace manufacture a prototype. Ortega estimates it'll take up to two years to build the mostly electric car — yes, the flying car is going to be green — and its navigation system. (Realistically, pending some due diligence, trade studies and analyses that are part of the contracting process, it's about four years away.)
If it works, the civilian applications are obvious. "You finally get your flying cars," Ortega forecasts. "And I mean truly flying cars. I don't mean cars you have to drive to the airport to take off." Take that, Terrafugia Transition.
Photo Credit: Logi AeroSpace
This story originally appeared on Wired.com on July 1, 2010, at 4:44 PM.