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Highway in the Sky

The "flying car" concept contemplates a vehicle that's as simple to operate as automobile. The average adult will not feel comfortable and safe flying an aircraft until piloting is made much simpler. In "That Flying Car Problem" I imagined a push-button aircraft that would do it all: file a flight plan, communicate with air traffic control, take off, fly, and land at your destination without interference. You'd just have to tell it where to take you. It would be a robotic air taxi.

highway in the sky.jpgThis is the future of air travel and NASA is already taking the intermediate steps to get us there.

The folks at NASA have built something called "The Highway in the Sky." It's a computer system designed to let millions of people fly whenever they please, and take off and land from wherever they please, in their very own vehicles…

...here’s how it works: In a NASA animation, pilots focus on one main screen. It’s very much like a videogame. Keep the plane inside the box, away from other vehicles, and the plane’s computers automatically guide them towards their destination. They can even follow the highway down to the ground.

This is just a part of NASA's plan. Through the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) program, NASA is working on aircraft computing, advanced flight controls, Highway in the Sky displays that would overlay the windshield, and automated air traffic separation and sequencing.

Automatic separation and sequencing is extremely important. A head-up display showing a virtual highway is useful only if the highway is clear. As Jim Strickland suggested in the comments, "[an air] traffic jam would be very, very bad."

Comments

"I imagined a push-button aircraft that would do it all: file a flight plan, communicate with air traffic control, take off, fly, and land at your destination without interference."

Paul Moller has been working on this concept for nearly 40 years (www.moller.com/skycar). They've done tethered flight tests and appear close to doing untethered tests.

Wouldn't geometry obviate concerns about traffic jams? With a maximum ceiling of 32,000 feet, and assuming (for simplicity's sake) flight corridors every 1,000 feet, we multiply today's capacity by 32 even if we restrict ourselves to the space over existing roads.

Given the low cost of opening more "lanes" (zero, or the cost of another flight-traffic computer), we gain exponentially more traffic corridors.

If we really can make the cars fully automated, I think we'll see a change in the market model from individually-owned vehicles to rental or taxi-like set-ups. Without the high overhead of a driver, flying taxis can be sent to pick up a passenger and return empty (no more soccer moms--just stick the kids in the taxi and send them to practice).

There certainly would be a lot of hybrid service models, like a service plan that ensures a flying car at your door at the right time every morning to get you to work. Different pricing levels would help distribute the fleet efficiently (7:45 a.m. costs 5X 7:00, and 10X the cost of 6:00?)

I'm sure there are things a simple layman like me is missing, but this appears promising.

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