As it’s now 2013 many people will, quite rightly, be tapping their local futurist on the shoulder and asking, “So, where is my flying car?” All is not lost, though: the technology that could make flying cars a reality is making some headway, at least in software.

The tech at issue is currently in the realm of serious simulation and is the work of a European research project called MyCopter, which is working out how squadrons of unskilled (and largely unschooled) pilots can fly future “personal air vehicles” – small helicopters that can land in a car-sized parking spot – without colliding with each other. To do that, these PAVs need to sense each other reliably, navigate accurately from point to point and pretty much drive themselves, much as a drone does.

As New Scientist revealed in July 2011, the €4.3 million MyCopter project numbers the University of Liverpool, UK, among its leading members. The university’s particular responsibility is simulation, and now Philip Perfect, Mike Jump and Mark White at Liverpoolhave developed PAV simulator software that runs on a commercial helicopter simulator called the HeliFlight-R and is helping them establish the ground rules for the personal flight era.

Jump says they have recruited volunteers ranging from people who are completely “flight naive” up to professional pilots to check how the aircraft behaves with drivers of all abilities. The degree of force feedback the pilot needs from the controls is currently being assessed with the help of aptitude tests the team have developed to assess factors like hand-eye coordination. Other issues include a pilot’s ability to choose a landing spot in a hurry.

“The aim is to give us a baseline in terms of the pilot’s latent ability, experience, response type and the set of control devices available. Once that’s analysed, we can then start to move away from this baseline to experiment with different controls, increased autonomy and explore how this affects the different groups’ ability to complete flight tasks,” says Jump.

The idea then will be to work out what level of autonomy might be required of PAVs as commercial vehicle makers (hopefully) develop them. The focus is on vertical take-off rotorcraft because the European Commission, which funds MyCopter, sees no future for flying cars that need runways, like the Terrafugia Transition and Burt Rutan’s BiPod “roadable aircraft” design.

There’s no saying when PAVs may become a reality, but the next sci-fi date to aim for might be 2019, the year in which Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner predicted we’d have flying cars. The technical issues should not be insurmountable: “sense and avoid” technology is a maturing field in the drone arena.

Source: New Scientist


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