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Far from 'The Jetsons,' air cars for commuters

NASA contest tests the efficiency and economy of experimental small-seat airplanes for use as a personal aircraft vehicle. Photos: Commuters in the sky

SANTA ROSA, Calif.--This weekend I literally went riding over hill and dale in wine country to find a members-only airfield where four flight teams were auditioning for the future role of "Honda sedan of the sky."

The event was NASA's first Personal Aircraft Vehicle (PAV) Challenge, a test of experimental small-seat airplanes with a prize purse of $250,000. The contestants all flew modified planes (some more so than others), including a home-built kit plane called the Vans RV-4, two Slovenia-built sport planes, and a Cessna 172.

The remoteness of the airport said a lot about NASA's race, however. Many people think the idea of middle-class people hopping into a high-tech air car to commute from, say, San Francisco to Los Angeles, is as far-fetched as a Jetsons cartoon. (Of course, strictly speaking, people already do own robot vacuums and live in space.)

But the tens of NASA engineers, pilots and here this weekend envision the future differently. They believe that with the right technology, small auto-piloted planes could one day alleviate traffic gridlock by shuttling people around on midrange trips (jaunts of between 100 and 500 miles) with much more speed, economy and efficiency than a car. "Planes for plain folk" is one motto.

After all, proponents say, 90 percent of people live within 20 miles of a small airport, but only 35 percent live within 20 miles of a hub airport, such as O'Hare International in Chicago. (There are about 50 hub airports and more than 10,000 public and private small airports in the United States.)

"We all want to travel faster," said Sid Siddiqui, an aeronautics specialist at Munro & Associates, a NASA partner that developed a PAV prototype unveiled last fall at . "Couldn't we leverage what the electronics and auto industry has done for manufacturing, displays and consumers, and transfer that to avionics and aircrafts?"

In testament to the idea, NASA is putting up $2 million over five years to advance PAV technology, even though it cut off funding to its internal research group two years ago. The first challenge tested the speed, efficiency, handling, noise emissions, takeoff and the overall qualities of each plane; and NASA awarded all of $250,000 prize money on Sunday as part its Centennial Challenges. A small-wing sport aircraft known as the Pipistrel Virus, which was recently approved by the FAA and costs about $70,000, swept three of the six categories to take home $150,000 of the prize money.

These challenges are a collection of seven private-industry contests designed to foster innovation in space travel, and the PAV Challenge stands out as the one contest supporting aeronautics. Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA who used to preside over the PAV group, said the challenges bolster "chaotic innovation," or ideas hatched in people's garages.

For that reason, Moore said, people must broaden their concept of reality to grasp PAVs. "Autos are entrenched in society, and we're talking about something people haven't experienced," Moore said while sitting inside a nearly empty hangar set up as a museum for PAV technology.

So how would average Joes fly PAVs? Supporters say it would be easy with the help of virtual pilot assistants and synthetic vision systems (SVS), technologies that would essentially take care of flight plans on demand and help people fly a plane with ease. Such technology could map out real-time highways in the sky at much less cost than pouring concrete and with much less congestion than traditional freeways, Moore said. Considering that PAVs are expected to fly at 150 mph, the cost of travel would be much cheaper and environmentally friendly than auto travel, he said.

Moore compared the intelligent systems of PAVs to the fluidity of a flock of seagulls. "In the next 20 to 40 years, we can develop vehicle intelligence that's as least as good as a seagull's pea-size brain," he said.

What about poor weather conditions, the threat of terrorism or other potential pitfalls? PAV proponents seem to have all the answers. Siddiqui, for example, suggested that technology could ultimately help PAVs deal with flying in bad weather conditions. Clever heat-exchange systems, for example, could help pull energy from the engine to defrost an icy plane; and wireless sensor networks could help detect turbulence and balance the craft in high winds, he said.

Siddiqui also pointed to a national effort to transfer from a radar-based air traffic control system to an air traffic management, or ADS-B, system that relies on Global Positioning System satellites. Radar currently tracks planes in the air, but in the future, proponents hope that planes will broadcast their position via GPS to remote stations. That automated system could enable a kind of highway in the sky, Siddiqui said, in which airfields could track and plot flight paths for PAVs within a 10-mile radius.

"A computer at an airport would 'listen' for all planes in a 10-mile radius with GPS and create a sequence for landing," he said.

Still, to look around the weakly attended race Saturday, PAV believers are in short supply. The Cafe Foundation, a nonprofit group of flight test engineers in charge of the event and evaluating the contestants, also said three of the original contestants dropped out of the challenge because they couldn't get licensing from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Backers say that more teams with novel technology are expected next year. Michael Coates, the Australian pilot who won $150,000 in the challenge, said he'll be back in 2008 for sure.

"It's just for fun," he said, adding that he could see a world with PAVs. "We're looking at making planes cheaper than cars and as easy to 'drive.'"