DARPA sets target date for testing 'flying Humvee'

The Defense agency says it has received two "feasible designs" for a rugged, hybrid SUV and aircraft.

The science fiction dream could be closer to reality – a flying car. Specifically, a “flying Humvee,” a prototype of which could be ready for tests by mid-2015, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

DARPA Transformer program manager Stephen Waller, speaking at an American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) conference, announced that both AAI Corp. and Lockheed Martin have produced “feasible designs” for its Transformer (TX) program, reported Aviation Week's Graham Warwick in a blog. Ground and flight demonstrations are slated for mid-fiscal 2015.

The car/plane design calls for a four-seat vehicle that could be piloted by anyone with a driver’s license, without special training. It must be able to withstand small arms fire, and be capable of off-road driving, automated take-off, and vertical lift and landing.

The vehicle has many design incongruities, such as being light enough for vertical lift yet roomy enough for people and able to carry heavy hardware, including ruggedized devices and armor. It needs to have a strong engine; wings and a propeller or fan, Warwick continued. “Meeting these requirements is pushing the state of the art in lightweight materials and structures, high power-to-weight engines and autonomous flight controls,” he writes.

But not everyone is enamored with the idea. Spencer Ackerman in a Wired blog questioned its usefullness: “It’s difficult to imagine a military problem that the Transformer actually solves. [DARPA] initially envisioned it as an answer to homemade bombs that disable ground vehicles … But assuming that the U.S. is even involved in a land conflict … why wouldn’t insurgents plant those bombs to lure the Transformer into the air and then hit it with a rocket-propelled grenade or anti-tank missile?”

DARPA announced its intentions for a flying car in April 2010 with a solicitation that, in addition to the specifications mentioned above, called for the vehicle to have a 1,000-pound capacity and rugged sport utility vehicle-like features, be able to fly up to 250 miles on a tank of fuel, and reach an altitude of 10,000 feet. The solicitation said it should cost no more than $55 million dollars.

When the solicitation was released, GCN Lab Director John Breeden II wrote that, technologically, “there isn’t much reason why we couldn’t have a flying car.” The real problem was designing one what accommodated both flying and ground transport, which have such different requirements.

Meanwhile over in the private sector, personal flying cars, that longtime staple of science fiction, might just be starting to get off the ground.

Terrafugia, a company started in 2006 by pilots/engineers from MIT, received approval in July from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for its Transition hybrid to operate on the roads, and it expects to begin sales in 2012.

The Transition, expected to cost between $200,000 and $250,000, has foldable wings that allow it to fit on the road, but, unlike DARPA’s flying Humvee, does require a pilot’s license. Unfortunately for science fiction fans, it’s not a car that can take to the air to avoid heavy traffic, but a plane that a pilot can drive home from the airport, or, land bad weather and continue its trip on wheels.

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