Shape of things to comeThe first true flying car: DARPA's Transformer TX

Published 27 May 2009

DARPA, in its FY 2010 budget request, has asked for $2 million to develop the Transformer TX; the list of requirement makes for a true flying car: it is quiet; it hovers; it carries up to four people and can run for up to two hours on one tank of fuel; it travels on roads; and can be operated “by a typical soldier”; it should also be able to run on an autopilot if need be

We have written several stories about the intriguing concept of flying cars (here is a sample: “Dutch Flying Car Company, Well, Takes Off,” 29 April 2009 HS Daily Wire; “World’s First Flying Car Debuts,” 18 March 2009 HS Daily Wire; “Day of Flying Car Nears,” 4 February 2009 HS Daily Wire). We know one thing: if it is an intriguing idea, DARPA — where, according to Lewis Page, they “believe it is better to invent a head-mounted multispectral imaging device than curse the darkness” — would show interest in it (see  “DARPA Invites Ideas for a Flying Car,” 13 November 2008 HS Daily Wire).

The flying cars available today include the Terrafugia Transition, a “roadable aeroplane” from Massachusetts-based Terrafugia. There are also various powered paraglider type craft in service — for example, the Parajet SkyCar — which can stow their canopies and drive on the ground.

As Lewis Page writes, though, these interesting specimen are not truly flying cars. The Transition is a light plane which the pilot will be able to drive on the road. Powered paragliders like the Parajet SkyCar have similar issues. In both cases, one needs a rather long bit of flat open space in which to land and take off. Both types of machine require expensive time-consuming training for the pilot, and even more training — plus a pricey extra fit of instruments — to fly in clouds or controlled airspace like that found above cities and major airports. Even with full instruments and pilot ratings, they can still be grounded by bad enough weather.

Neither the Transition or the SkyCar can make vertical landings and takeoffs, nor hover in midair, and, in addition, both are also very noisy. All this means that operations into and out of built-up areas are not feasible. The Transition is intended to land or take off at existing small airstrips; the SkyCar and its kind may be able to make use of small fields which are not surrounded by many neighbors, but one drawback of the SkyCar is that its very slow.

Page writes that what we need from a true flying car is the ability to hover, and for such a car to be quiet, not require expensive and perishable piloting skills, and which can still be driven on roads.

It appears that DARPA wants just such a car in its Transformer (TX) vehicle program. The agency has asked for an initial $2 million in funding in its FY 2010 budget