The Science of Sustainability

NASA Flying Car Challenge: future or flight of fancy?

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NASA has created a Centennial Challenges series – contests for everyday people to develop new technologies that may offer inspiration for the space agency. The most famous of these is the space elevator challenge, where teams create a solar powered elevator prototype. The one that gets to the top the fastest wins. Others include space gloves and lunar landers. Quest looks at this month’s competition: personal aircraft.

If you've ever found yourself stuck in Bay Area traffic, you've probably found yourself wishing you could fly right over it. Flying cars are usually the stuff of science fiction, but a group of engineers at NASA is hoping to change that. They're sponsoring a technology contest to revolutionize small planes – and it's open to the general public.

With congestion increasing in the Bay Area, many argue we'll need new innovations to tackle it, including mass transit and personal air vehicles. What do you think the future of transportation should look like? Do you think government agencies like NASA should spend more on research?

You may listen to the "NASA Flying Car Challenge" Radio report online, as well as find additional links and resources.

Lauren Sommer reports for QUEST and Radio News at KQED-FM.

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Category: Astronomy, Engineering, Radio

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.
  • http://www.wca.org al juodikis

    Very timely article and news report. WCA will be hosting an event October 16, 2007 which address the commercialization of UAV technology used by government agencies and military for various unmannned missions. The UAV technology is directly applicable to flying cars since key wireless components include; navigation – GPS, communications, radar – collision avaoidance, and other. perhaps this might be of interest to KQED audience and NPR.

    About WCA
    Founded in 1993, the Wireless Communications Alliance (aka "WCA") is a Silicon Valley-based, nonprofit corporation dedicated to the mutual benefit of Northern California companies and organizations involved in wireless communication technologies. WCA reaches over 2,200 individuals and more than 350 companies and organizations. The goals of the WCA are to promote education, networking and exchange of knowledge; increase awareness of Northern California's vast wireless capabilities; support development and growth of companies in our region; and serve as a bridge between business and academia. The WCA organizes monthly General Session and Special Interest Group events with presentations by experts and leaders from around the world on a wide spectrum of topics including; the technical and marketing aspects of wireless products and services, regulatory issues, wireless standards and investor-driven wireless market analysis. The WCA is run by an all-volunteer Board of Directors.

  • Don Gerimonte

    It hardly seems rational to allow persons into the air with flying cars when they can't even keep an SUV upright, on the ground. I don't want to see people and planes falling out of the sky, into a place in which I'm living.

  • Mark Moore

    A very accurate story, one of the best I have seen from a reporter about this topic.

    I understand public sketicism based on bad driving experiences, and the fear of the unknown consequences of having small aircaft much more plentiful in the skies.

    However, with the technologies that were discussed, the is the real possibility of safety being even better than automobile travel. In autos we are often traveling just 4' away from each other at closure speeds of 90 to 130 mph. Any sane person 100 years ago whould say that is absolutely crazy. In future PAVs, you would be traveling with separation distances of at least 500 ft, with highly organized digital pathways in the sky, without close proximity obstacles being a concern (ie dogs, children, bicycles in the roads). A diversification, and distribution of travel will help to clear things up – with short trips roadboard, but longer trips out of the traffic and traveling at the high speeds that provide better efficiency and use of time.

    I know many have trouble getting their minds about this topic, because they envision crazy Jetson-like vehicles and can't relate because we have been indoctrinated the past 100 years to an auto dominated world. The technology is close to achieving this goal – the real question is whether the public can wrap their minds around it. The same paradigm shift happened 100 years ago as horse transitioned to auto, and required a generation to die off before it was fully accepted. We went through a much faster similar transition in computing 30 years ago, with people thinking that small computers would have no role or feasibility in our daily lifes.

    Thanks for the great story!

  • delstud

    i had a vision to build a prototype of a lift pod. i built the prototype and my theory proved correct. the prototype worked as planned but it broke apart after a couple minutes because of my craftmanship. at this point i would like to take it further but i have no direction.
    delstud12@hotmail.com