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Designers of Flying Car Win Lemelson Student Prize

By Don Aucoin
THE BOSTON GLOBE


Since the age of 8, Carl C. Dietrich ’99 has wanted to be an aerospace engineer, and soon he will be one, armed with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But there was another ambition — considerably less pragmatic, downright fanciful, in fact — that fired Dietrich’s childhood dreams in Sausalito, Calif. He would sit looking out the window of his family home, he recalls, and think: “Gosh, wouldn’t it be cool if we had a vehicle that could fly in our driveway?”

Plenty of other kids (and gridlocked commuters) have had the same dream, of course. The difference is that Dietrich believed he could one day design a flying car. Now, at 28, he is doing so.

For the past year, he and two others have quietly been developing plans for a flying car, or Personal Air Vehicle. Dubbed the Transition, it is still in the design stage, but they hope to begin manufacturing it by 2009. Already they have applied for four patents with the US Patent and Trademark Office and have discussed their plans with Federal Aviation Administration officials.

“We’re battling a credibility issue with a concept like this, because it has been tried so many times before,” Dietrich conceded. “People tend to smirk when you say you’re trying to make a flying car: ‘Oh, you’re one of those guys.’” But, he insisted, “This isn’t just another flying car concept. We’re very serious about producing a flying car and selling it.”

Few who know Dietrich would bet against him. Even by MIT’s standards, he is considered a standout — so much so, in fact, that today he will be announced as the winner of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. An outside panel of scientists and technologists chose Dietrich for his “portfolio of novel inventions,” including not just the flying car but also a desktop-size fusion reactor and a lower-cost rocket engine.

Merton Flemings, the director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, said yesterday that Dietrich beat out “quite a large number” of other candidates to be named “the most outstanding innovator of the year.” Flemings, who has taught engineering and materials science at MIT for 50 years, maintained that Dietrich just might be the one to finally fulfill the dream of a widely available flying car.

“With the advent of new materials and new engines and his innovative design, he’s got a chance to make it work,” Flemings said. “I think the time has come.”

The future is now

If Dietrich and his teammates do succeed in their bid to create, manufacture, and mass-market a flying automobile, it will make a reality of a concept that has long defeated the best efforts of other inventors, even as it has continued to tickle the public’s imagination. Flying cars have been a staple of pop-culture fantasy, from the book and movie versions of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” to the 1960s TV cartoon “The Jetsons” to films that range from larky (“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”) to thrilling (“The Man With the Golden Gun”) to dystopian (“Blade Runner”).

But to Dietrich and the two others working on the project, 28-year-old Samuel A. Schweighart PhD ’05 and 24-year-old Anna M. Mracek ’04, a flying car represents an engineering puzzle to be solved and a business opportunity to be seized. Not that they are blind to the sheer romance of the endeavor. Since all three are licensed pilots, Mracek admitted, “We want this thing as soon as possible, because we want to use it.”

The prospect of combining flying and driving in a single vehicle has tantalized engineers, inventors, and visionaries for decades. In 1940, Henry Ford proclaimed: “Mark my word, a combination airplane and motor car is coming. You may smile, but it will come.”

Yet even though the FAA has already certified a couple of flying cars, and even though FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said yesterday that “the concept of airplanes as personal transportation” is on the agency’s radar, flying cars have yet to catch on as an everyday vehicle.

The team is out to change that. The Transition would weigh 1,320 pounds, feature a 100-horsepower engine, stand 6 1/2 feet tall, and be 80 inches wide. “If you can fit a Cadillac Escalade in your garage, you can fit this,” said Dietrich. Schweighart, an MIT graduate who now works at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, adds that the Transition will be best understood as a “drivable airplane.” Their hope is that it will fit into the new FAA category of light sport aircraft and would take off from airports rather than lifting off from a driveway or roadway. (So much for that Bostonian fantasy of an airborne escape route from the Southeast Expressway.)

Here’s how they envision it working: A driver (who would have to have a pilot’s license) gets into the front seat of the Transition, turns a key in the ignition, and drives to the nearest small airport. The wings stick up from the sides; the rear propeller is not in use. Once at the airport, he pushes a button, lowering the 27-foot wings into flying position. The pilot runs a pre-flight check of the aircraft. Then, the pilot turns the key in the ignition once more, starts the propeller, taxis to the runway, and takes off. Traveling at about 120 miles per hour, at a cruising altitude between 3,500 to 8,000 feet (though the aircraft would be able to go as high as 12,000 feet), he flies to his destination. After landing at the airport, he pushes a button to transform the plane into a car and drives to his business meeting. Later, he drives back to the airport, changes it into a plane, flies back, converts the Transition to a car, and drives home.

Dietrich points out, however, that the Transition would not make a very practical family car. “This is not going to replace your Toyota Camry,” he said. “You could take it to the store, but it doesn’t have the trunk space of your SUV.”

As they toil away on the project, into which they have poured thousands of dollars of their own money, the students are fully aware that they are in a race against other innovators across the country who are also working on a flying car. They are also fully aware how often inventors have tried and failed. Even at MIT, which routinely ventures to the furthest frontiers of scientific innovation, the project is creating ripples of excitement among the few who know about it. “It is a workable design, though he’s got a considerable amount of work yet to do,” said John E. Keesee SM ’75, a retired Air Force colonel who is an instructor in MIT’s Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. “What’s most unique about Carl is he can bring projects to fruition.”

It was 18 months ago that Dietrich resurrected his childhood dream of designing a flying car. He and Schweighart had been discussing their postgraduation plan to form a company. “We asked, ‘What are the big problems in aerospace that we could raise the capital to attack?’” The problem Dietrich homed in on, he said, was “the general desire of the average Joe to travel some distance, of 500 miles, in a time-effective manner” not subject to the schedule of an airline or railroad.

Piloting their course

When Dietrich suggested they build their company around the invention of a flying car, Schweighart laughed. “Then he showed me an engineering sketch of a vehicle, and I realized he was serious,” Schweighart said. They set to work, conducting computer-aided aerodynamic design analyses. They went through 52 different vehicle configurations before settling on the current one. They have tested several models in the MIT wind tunnel.

A year ago, they asked Mracek, an MIT Aeronautics-Astronautics graduate student, to join the team because of her organizational skills. Since then, with an eye toward raising capital and forming a business, they have added to the team a pair of students from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Alex B. Min G and Arun Prakash G.

They all are convinced the time is right for a flying car. Study after study finds that America’s roads are increasingly clogged with traffic. To go on business or leisure trips of a few hundred miles, many travelers squander half a day traveling by plane, train, or car. Keesee, who is not involved in the project, said recent advances in aerodynamic technology make a flying automobile more feasible. Dietrich said the nation’s smaller, general aviation airports are chronically underutilized. And the FAA has recently streamlined the certification requirements for light sport aircraft, which, in the students’ view, would make the Transition less costly to build.

At the moment, they don’t know how much it will cost to build. They also don’t know how much it will cost customers, though Dietrich estimates it will be between the average cost of a car (about $30,000) and the average cost of general aviation aircraft (which typically cost between $100,000 and $200,000).

Despite many attempts over the years, a flying car for the masses has remained elusive. In 1917, just 14 years after the Wright brothers’ historic flight, the Autoplane designed by an aviator named Glenn H. Curtiss made a short flight. But the Autoplane fell victim to the problem that has bedeviled the concept ever since: In trying to be both car and plane, it didn’t function well as either.

In the 1920s, Ford threw his company’s clout behind the notion of a “flying flivver,” but he abandoned the project when a prototype crashed, killing a friend. In 1949, a former US Navy aeronautical engineer named Moulton B. Taylor designed the Aerocar, and launched his first model in 1956. It had detachable wings that were removed for driving and reattached for flying. Taylor created several later models of his Aerocar, several of which still exist (one was used by actor Bob Cummings in the 1960s; another was used for a time as a traffic-watch aircraft by a radio station in Portland, Ore.).

If Dietrich and his partners succeed in making flying cars more commonplace, it’s possible that not all the changes will be beneficent. Traffic congestion on the ground is already at noxious levels, and the prospect of the skies clogged with cars is enough to make the heart sink. Moreover, notes Keesee, “If drunk drivers are bad, drunk pilots are going to be far worse.”

But that’s down the road, or the sky, as the case may be. Right now, the students are intent on finishing the design phase and getting the Transition on the market. They plan to incorporate soon as a company called Terrafugia (derived from the Latin words for “earth” and “to escape”), and have set up a Web site: terrafugia.com. In May, they will introduce the Transition in Boston at an event hosted by the Experimental Aircraft Association. In July, they will talk up their concept and display scale models at the EAA’s annual AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, Wis., which attracts thousands of aviation enthusiasts from around the world. If their idea gets an enthusiastic response from that demanding audience, the trio will start to raise capital to build the Transition.

“We’re not going for a radical transformation, to just throw society into ‘The Jetsons,’” said Mracek. However, she added, “if this is the commercial reality we think it can be, changes will occur in the world.”