Remember all those visions of the future we were sold as kids? Underwater cities, vacations in outer space, nuclear powered kitchens and robot servants? How about personal jet packs and flying cars? Of all the lies Popular Science told us, it’s the jet packs and flying cars, or absence of these, that piss me off the most.
My commute used to be 110 miles per day, across the Tappan Zee Bridge to Westchester County, NY. On a good day, it took an hour and a half each way. Accidents, falling ice or other trouble on the bridge created a commuting nightmare, with my all time record standing at 3 hours and 45 minutes for a one-way commute.
As the crow flies, my commuting distance was about 35 miles. With a jet pack or flying car, traffic jams would have been irrelevant. Assuming a sustainable speed of one hundred miles per hour, it would have taken me just over 20 minutes each way. But here’s the rub; flying cars still need a place to take off and land. Driving to and from an airport as part of the commute adds time, distance and the inconvenience of converting your vehicle from one form of transportation to the other. Up to now, personal jet packs were good for only limited distances, making them impractical for daily commuting.
Enter the Puffin, a prototype electric powered flying suit under development by NASA.
Designed for vertical take off and landing (VTOL), the Puffin eliminates the need for an airport as a departure or arrival point. Powered by rechargeable batteries and electric motors, the craft is quiet enough to be used in an urban environment, making it ideal for commuting applications.
The current design calls for a range of approximately 50 miles between charges, with a cruising speed of around 140 miles per hour. NASA expects to have a small scale prototype completed by March, 2010, but is already looking at ways to improve the design (including higher density batteries for extended range and additional rotors for added safety) of future versions.
Sure, this is going to the military first. The stealth and VTOL capabilities make it ideal for battlefield use, and you can rest assured that production versions will not be priced within reach of the average consumer. Ponder this for a second, however; what if General Motors could produce a civilian version for under $30k? What if the FAA treated the Puffin as an ultralight, with relaxed licensing requirements? How many of these could GM sell to commercial and private users? Boatloads, would be my guess.
It won’t happen, of course. The threat of liability lawsuits killed the light aircraft industry, and would have the same effect on anything like the Puffin. Still, knowing that something like this does exist is just enough to give me a bit of optimism. Maybe there’s still hope for flying cars after all.