The dawn of a new era in efficient flight (audio slideshow)

Pushing new frontiers at NASA's Green Flight Challenge, trying to make a Prius fly.

SANTA ROSA, Calif.--On-demand aviation, the idea that mobility one day can be just as personal and convenient in the air as it is on the ground, is a lofty goal. And it's what competitors at NASA's Green Flight Challenge going on here this week are trying to attain.

Aerospace Engineer Mark Moore said the challenge, which is one of NASA's Centennial Challenges and sponsored by Google, is about finding ways to use the layers of uncluttered 3D space above us to get around--and how to do it in an energy-efficient manner.

Commercial planes currently average about 50 passenger miles per gallon; this competition pushes teams to design aircraft that can reach better than 200 passenger miles per gallon. To claim the $1.65 million in prize money, teams must also fly at least 100 miles per hour for a distance of 200 miles.

Thirteen custom aircraft were developed with electric, biodiesel, and other advanced biofuel engines, and using various technologies to improve aerodynamic, propulsion, and structural efficiency. Only three teams, though, qualified to fly at this week's event, which was put on by the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation Foundation, a nonprofit working to advance the understanding of personal aircraft technologies.

The planes competing here are custom-built, one-of-a-kind aircraft, and according to Moore, their flights are a "Lindberg moment," the dawn of electric flight. Check them out in action in this audio slideshow.

"We're trying to make a Prius fly," said Sam Ortega, program manager for the Centennial Challenges.

But before you start asking for your flying car, hold on. Moore says this event is really more about personal flight--the ability to go to a nearby community launch pad and travel, perhaps in a car-sharing use model, hundreds of miles, on-demand.

Moore says eventually two critical component technologies NASA is exploring--autonomous technology and electric propulsion--will eventually enable that kind of transportation. Semi-autonomous haptic control technologies are being developed that will provide what Moore calls a "horse and rider experience"--letting the machine do what it's good at, and letting the person stay in control. And, Moore says, events like this week's Green Flight Challenge are just the kind of thing that will help lead to these advanced conceptual next generation transportation systems.

About the author

James Martin is the staff photographer at CNET News, covering the geeks and gadgets of Silicon Valley. When he's not live-blogging the latest product launches from Apple, Google, or Facebook, James can be found exploring NASA, probing robotics labs, and getting behind-the-scenes with some of the Bay Area's most innovative thinkers.

 

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