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Fly me to the Gherkin

Do you remember all of those science fiction movies where air taxis would soar across the skyline taking paying customers from highrise to highrise? Neither do I but air cars were included in the visions of the future that the twentieth century popularised. That future is now creeping up on us.

A firm in the United Kingdom called Avcen has developed a short take off and landing prototype called the Jetpod.

Mike Dacre, Avcen’s Managing Director, says “We are expecting a great deal of interest from around the world in this unique form of localised air transportation.”

The Jetpod T-100 air taxi and the P-100 personal transpeeder can operate quietly in tiny city-centre landing sites that will be one tenth of the length normally required, thereby opening up cities to true pay-on-demand, free-roaming air taxis.

This is preferable to the train or tube and could prove the disruptive technology that ends New York’s taxi licence cartel.

29 comments to Fly me to the Gherkin

  • Sorry to rain on your parade, but what will kill this will be liability insurance.

    How much damage would one of these things do if it loses power and falls out of the sky?

  • Doug Jones

    Color me skeptical. The computer-rendered vehicles are laughable- the hemispherical tail is the absolute worst configuration for drag and unsteady flow separation, the (long, skinny) engines appear to be low bypass (ie, noisy and poor fuel economy), and the close-coupled T-tail begs for catastrophic stall characteristics.

    The engine installations show no sign of any thrust vectoring or blown-flap lift augmentation, and the high engine mounts will give serious pitch trim changes with throttle changes. (Add power, nose drops- ugly for a balked landing go-around.)

    The main gear is so far aft that the tail, with its short lever arm, will have great difficulty prying the nose off the ground for takeoff. Indeed, the tail will have a hard time doing anything, set that close to the wing.

    Those are just the problems I can see, and I’m not even an aircraft designer.

  • e m butler

    air cars wont work because of the fall-out-of-the -sky problem

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Philip Chaston wrote:

    Do you remember all of those science fiction movies where air taxis would soar across the skyline taking paying customers from highrise to highrise?

    Yes, I do. Watch Just Imagine, a 1930 film set in the distant future — of 1980!

    To be honest, it’s a hoot, and really worth watching despite its hokey plot and silly musical numbers.

  • i would add that automation might be a way to alleviate concerns. i mean, i’m sure most people here have witnessed first hand how the average cabby drives in a relatively safe automobile.

    automating piloting would be good for insurance purposes, as there are deterministic rates of failures, and known failure conditions.

    further, allowing for a networked coordination is something would alleviate inevitable air traffic.

    the main reason this isn’t done for cars (yet) is that driving is a far more difficult task than flying, with respect to perception and situational awareness.

  • Andrew Robb

    Fly-by-wire systems might solve some of the problems with flight charateristics but there is the simple fact that a good engineer can help some of the problems caused by bad mechanics and operators, but the best mechanics and pilots in the world can do nothing to fix a lousy design. If they are flying that tank in the picture I’m moving to the country.

    I just don’t think it’s workable though. Piloting takes some real skill and training. Automated systems might help but you would still see huge safftey concerns after a while. Part of the reason automobile crash statistics are so large is because there’s so many cars on the road. More planes means more flaming wreckage falling out of the sky.

  • NC

    Why is this better than an helicopter? Is it production costs? Fuel requirements?

  • zmollusc

    Wow! This is definitely going to be a success. Pretty soon everyone in London will have their own VQSTOL aircraft taking off and landing in their 500ft long garden.

  • Del Eastman

    The Cessna Caravan goes for a base price of about one million U.S.

    I simply don’t see how these guys are going to produce a twin engine jet aircraft for about the same price.

  • Jacob

    If it’s just a concept and not yet an actual plane, or a definite design – couldn’t they hire a better artist to make a sexier drawing ? This thing is ugly. Hard to beleive it could fly !

  • Andrew Duffin

    I can’t wait for the white van brigade to get hold of a few of these things.

  • Ron

    About 5 years ago, Richard Noble decided to follow up his successful supersonic Land Speed Record car ThrustSSC with a properly designed aircraft to achieve the same purpose as the aircraft proposed above.

    However, the banks wouldn’t support him and the project was taken over by financially aggressive individuals who (as far as I know) have produced nothing to match their immense amount of promises.

  • Euan Gray

    Million dollar plane versus $40k taxi? Taxi licence versus aviation licence, certificates of airworthiness and horrendous insurance premia? Self-employed taxi-drivers or highly trained and highly salaried qualified pilots? Wide availability of public roads versus limited supply of 500 foot runways?

    If there is a cartel in the supply of taxicab licences, why is it thought that no such cartel would come into place for air-taxi licences?

    I think it’s a solution in search of a problem.

    EG

  • Ken

    Yes, yes, aircars can fall out of the sky.

    But onto what?

    A skycar falling out of the sky is mainly a problem if it’s flying over a city. If it’s out in the countryside, the odds of it actually hitting something go way down.

    Which means that liability insurance costs go way down if the insured agrees to avoid cities.

    Isn’t that kind of a bummer? Not really. Given a sufficient population of skycar owners, they don’t need no stinking cities. The Moller skycar advertises a cruising speed of 315 miles per hour – with that kind of speed, “driving distance” takes on a whole new meaning. Businesses and homes scattered over hundreds of miles are now accessible to the skycar owners, as long as they are not in cities.

    Which means that as skycars come down in price and go way up in popularity, the cities themselves will become obsolete, and the dispersed population will take “urban sprawl” to a whole new level.

    As a bonus, once groundcars are relegated to the museums as they should have been for more than 30 years, even a nuke going off in the US won’t be catastrophic the way it would be today.

    What are the odds of it playing out like this? Well, first we’ll probably have to shut down the FAA and build something new in its place from the ground up. We’ll have to replace pilot license requirements with a simple mandatory liability insurance scheme. And there’ll be the commercial airliners, who will lose enormous amounts of traffic if this ever plays out, so you can be sure they’ll dump scads of money on Washington if this ever threatens to work out in our favor.

    But isn’t it a travesty for us to all still be using groundcars more than a hundred fricking years after the Wright Brothers’ flight?

  • Andrew Robb

    First off, I don’t think it’s a travesty.

    Secondly, to insure proper saftey of pilot, passengers and crew aircraft (I refuse to use the term aircar) must be inspected before and after each flight and maintained with the strictest discipline. I personnaly find the number of people who neglect routine maintence on their automobiles astounding, so the idea of placing a multi-ton SVTOL aircraft, which would be vastly more mecanically complicated than and automobile, in the hands of the average driver strikes me as just plain crazy. After all there’s no place to stop and pull over at 30,000 feet. Also you should note that a lower crusing altitude just makes things worse because you have less time to restart the engines before you hit.

    Add to to the above concerns the fact that pre-flight fuleing, inspection and start up on modern aircraft can often take up to two hours before they are ready to fly and you need a journey greater than 945 miles before it would net you any time savings over say a commuter train. It’s just not practical because it simply is not that convienent to own an aircraft.

    I have expeirence with military aircraft, especially fighters, and while I won’t post the average time to “scramble” a jet here I will assure you that even the best turn around time makes anything shorter than a two day trip by car not worth your trouble.

    I have trouble believing that any new technology developed within the next 50 years will alieiviate the basic neccesities of aircraft maintenece and saftey.

    Sorry,

    Andrew Robb

  • Ken

    So why do modern aircraft suck in so many ways? Why are they so difficult to fly? Why do they need such expensive and time-consuming maintenance for every single trip?

    In short, why are modern aircraft so thoroughly unsuitable for the average driver?

    Groundcars used to be that way, long ago. Computers once demanded the same exceptional intelligence, dedication, and exacting care in order to function properly.

    The difference is that people could, and did, make a lot of money improving on these products and creating versions that average people could use and afford. But, if anyone tried to introduce an aircraft that an average person could control and use without such expertise or dedication, he’d lose his shirt because average people wouldn’t be allowed to use it. So the improvements that tend to happen in less regulated products never happened in the personal aircraft industry, and after a century, the things are still thoroughly unsuitable for average people to use, but quite suitable for the only market that is permitted to use them; the aircraft evolved just as you’d expect it to with a market restricted by law to the extent that aircraft has been.

    Remove those restrictions, let people make money selling craft that average people can fly safely, and you’ll see vast improvements in the user-friendliness of the succeeding versions of the product. Let the potential market be expanded to average drivers, and products aimed at them will take a hell of a lot less than 50 years to develop.

  • Andrew Robb

    Ken,

    Seeing as how the areospace industry often uses the leading edge of modern technology and still has to face the simply truth of air travel being inherantly more risky that ground travel. I don’t see how simply de-regulating the industry is going to fix that.

    I currently work with F-16′s, which were designed in the late 70′s and even in their original trim that particular aircraft was light years ahead of many of the 2005 model cars that will be introduced this year. Materials, electronics, control systems, the f-16 was the aircraft that proved that fly- by-wire would work in combat.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT claiming that the FAA is god on high and we should obey mindlessly. But the areospace industry has been using the best technonogy available, they have been making aircraft that are easier to fly, in short they have been trying to do what you’ve said and they still haven’t gotten there because it’s simply not that easy to do.

    It’s harsh reality, you don’t maintain any one of an aircraft’s viatal systems you crash and DIE. You can’t skip that pre-flight inspection, it’s vital. You can’t skip fuleing and say you’ll stop at the next gas station. You can’t skip a schedualed inspection and you can’t skip scedualed overhauls.These things take time and money, and for most people would be seen as a waste of both. There is just more to flying than turn the key and go.

    again I hate to rain on your parade but sorry,

    Andrew

  • Ken

    “But the areospace industry has been using the best technonogy available, they have been making aircraft that are easier to fly, in short they have been trying to do what you’ve said and they still haven’t gotten there because it’s simply not that easy to do.”

    The aerospace industry has also had very different design goals, from the very beginning, than a company serving the mass market would. Thus, they’ve been producing planes that are very good for the market they are serving, and very bad for the market that they aren’t. The existence of suitable technology is not enough – significant design work has to be done that no one has ever had enough of an incentive to do.

  • Andrew Robb

    Every pilot benifits from an aircraft that’s easier to fly, not just civillian pilots. The commercial avaition industry is one of the biggest consumers of automated controls and avionics. They are also one of the biggest consumers of low maintenence engines and airframe components and ask a longer inspection interval of both.

    Piloting takes practice, even with automation. Humans are born and adapted to life on the ground and it takes some getting used to thinking about three axes of movement, one of which can kill you.

    To top it off, my quibble is not really with the pilots. It’s with the maintenance of the aircraft. Aircraft are much more complicated to maintain than a car and that makes the “just put gas in it and call a mechanic if anything goes wrong” attitude of most drivers is both potentially lethal and expensive. That in it’s self will kill demand.

    As an example of this I point to the untimely death of professional golfer Pane Stewart. The pilot of his learjet was a former USAF pilot who had thousands of hours of experience behind the stick. They were not killed by pilot error. The cabin depressurized which probably killed all abord before the jet crashed. All of the potential causes of cabin depressurization are mecancal or structural failures that most often can pe prevented with propper maintenance.

    Deregualtion won’t fix that. Even with the threat of losing their livlelyhood and never being able to work in aviation again,which is exactly what happened to the owners of Stewart’s plane, people still skimp on maintenance. You just can’t do that, it kills.

    Andrew Robb

  • Andrew Robb

    I should have added that it’s significant that depressurization killed Stewart and his companions. Aircraft pressurization systems don’t even register in the minds of most people. They see sequences in shows like Alias where the door to a plane is blown open at high altitutude and the only concern of the occupants is not falling out.

    And that’s just one of the multitude of non engine systems that can fail in mid air and kill you.

    I actually met a person who thought that the power steering on their car was electrical and not hydralic. Do you want THEM deciding on key maintenance issues of the plane you fly in with out any guidlelines other than the manufacture’s owners manual?

  • zmollusc

    Well, with concerns about maintenence and engine-failure-induced crashes prohibiting the ordinary idiot in the street from using an aircraft instead of a car, perhaps we should re-evaluate the autogyro?
    Much less complex than a car, shorter landing strip than the airtaxi under discussion, similar cruising speed to a car, soft landing if engine falls off…… etc etc etc.
    Personally, i go to the shops in my Flying Flea, but then I always was slow to move onto new technology.

  • Andrew Robb

    They’re not idots most of them just don’t care. And for that matter why not just drive? Then you have even fewer concerns about falling out of the sky. Unless you drive near cliffs.

  • Ken

    “They’re not idots most of them just don’t care. And for that matter why not just drive? ”

    Because (1) it’s a lot slower, (2) all traffic has to be funneled through narrow concrete strips, leading to countless bottlenecks and (3) depending on the groundcar requires concentrations of population that are easy to kill in large numbers once technology progresses for a few more decades and nuclear weapons become easy to build.

    “Every pilot benifits from an aircraft that’s easier to fly, not just civillian pilots. The commercial avaition industry is one of the biggest consumers of automated controls and avionics. They are also one of the biggest consumers of low maintenence engines and airframe components and ask a longer inspection interval of both. ”

    The relevant tradeoffs are different, leading to different design goals. Experienced pilots would like low maintenance engines, but not if it will cost too much; he knows how to do the inspections. Average consumers must have really low-maintenance engines and other parts, regardless of what it does to speed, performance, or price; the craft is unusable otherwise. This drastically changes the direction of the design effort.

    I’m not expecting suitable craft to pop up overnight. There’s lots of work that needs to be done given the new goals, parameters, and tradeoffs. But without regulatory changes, this work will never get done and your grandchildren will still be driving glorified Model-T’s.

    And in the meantime, I’d favor the regulatory changes even if a number of idiots did wind up killing themselves. I simply do not support government action to protect people from themselves, whether it be a drug ban, a prescription requirement, or stringent pilot regulations. Such foolishness, if it did occur, would not be widespread for long – both the instructive value of other people’s bad examples and natural selection would cut blatantly reckless behavior to a manageable level in a hurry.

  • zmollusc

    “depending on the groundcar requires concentrations of population that are easy to kill in large numbers once technology progresses for a few more decades and nuclear weapons become easy to build”
    Cool! With aircars we can be dispersed and commute 200 miles a day to offices to answer the phone, exchange emails, and put new paper in the fax. I see no inefficiency there.

  • Andrew Robb

    Ken,

    I’ll admit that there may be a slight difference in the current aircraft market and what an open market for “aircars”(there I went ahead and used it) might produce as a final product. But the less airlines and private owners have to do maintenece the cheaper an aircraft is to operate. It’s good buisness strategy to get the longest interval possible between schedualed maintanence.

    Schedualed inspections and component repair are almost always done by a professional mechanic not pilots. The specialized machine tooling involved is too expensive for a private pilot to own. Many of the “wrenches” are in reality hydralically powered devices that bear little resemblance to anything you buy at the hardwhare store. The tooling for the engines I work on comes from the manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney.

    zmollusc

    The inefficiency comes in what you have to do each morning before your commute and each evening before your trip home. If you are flying anything resembaling the aircraft in that article, a detailed inspection of the engine inlet and the leading edge of each blade is required to insure that no damage has been done to it during the last flight as even high mounted engines can easily ingest debris and become damaged, it doesn’t take all that much to kill an engine.

    Then you have to top off the tank in case you miss a landing or get lost on your way home, we’re talking a couple hundred gallons here, not twenty from the pump. Then a complete walk around of the fuselage checking for leaks, damage, worn tires, etc. A fifteen minute run check to ensure that hydralic, electrical and control systems are functioning properly. Near a congested airspace you could also wait hours before you are allowed to take off and yes control towers would still be needed. Even more so with more aircraft around, think of them as traffic signals for planes.

    All of that verses a twenty minute walk to a train station and a nice relaxing ride on a bullet train (which the U.S. desperatly needs to build en masse).

    Ken,

    I do agree that if some moron want’s to take chances you should let him. The Darwin Awards is some of my favorite reading. I’d just rather he not do it any where near me and with a multi-ton aircraft full of fuel.

    I think that the cutting of “blatanly reckless” behavior would also kill demand for “aircars”. The public is very quick to condemn, and always has been.

    Andrew Robb

  • Jhn1

    Mr Robb and Mr. Den Beste both have part of the problem, expressed more simply as cost per useage. Cost is time to safety check and gain route access. Cost is liability insurance. Cost is amortization of million dollar craft and maintenance costs to keep it in the air.
    New engineering *MIGHT* have solutions for these, although it is extremely doubtful to the degree necessary to make it economically feasable without vast increases in personal wealth. More likely are incremental improvements reducing certain costs coupled with higher costs for much higher safety standards once in operation.
    What they, or anyone else, don’t address here (Mr.Den Beste has addressed energy costs and portability on his website) is energy cost. Rolling along on the ground is relatively efficient. Exerting energy to keep oposing gravity (ie: not “fall out of the sky”) is not so efficient, especially for “specialty” operations like take-offs. Express the energy cost as value per mass per distance. Aircraft weight is an additional factor ($ or euro per take-off plus more per distance) as is not just payload cost, added to every flight. Popular Science had a couple of companies in an article that ran about a decade ago and the best either one estimated was maybe 10mpg for 2+2 seating @450lb. payload. Thoroughly in the gas-guzzler category. As I recall, subsequent issues had outside engineers disputing that level of efficiency, and IIRC that MPG rating was for a vehicle rated at ~140 to 160MPH max velocity. At double thatvelocity, the fuel economy obviously suffers from the increased drag.
    Unless we asume we have lots more discretionary wealth in spite of Kyoto or successors, the total expense is prohibitive for anyone who can’t currently afford a Lear anyway.

  • Andrew Robb

    I was assuming said discretionary wealth but you have an excellent point.

  • zmollusc

    I am too oblique for my own good. I was trying to imply that it is not necessary to commute at all most of the time.
    Anyone who has to gather in one spot to do their job (coal mine, shipyard, factory, that kind of thing) probably won’t be paid enough to buy an aircraft. Anyone paid enough to buy an aircraft probably doesn’t NEED to commute as most of the information they act on and orders they formulate are transmitted electronically.

  • Andrew Robb

    My apologies then, I think my zeal blocked your wit.

    To state the obvious flying cars really hack me off. There are a lot better things for intelligent and mecanically inclied people to be working on.