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“I’ve been lecturing on this subject for about a decade and a half,” says Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, “and at the end of every talk, people ask me two main questions: Where can I buy one; and where can I get a franchise to sell them? People want these things.”

“These things” are aircars-a.k.a.  flying cars or personal VTOL (vertical-take-off-and-landing) aircraft, and many people do want them. What could be a more appealing vision of the world of tomorrow than stepping into one’s own flying machine and heading off into the wild blue yonder?

This vision could be realized sooner than you think. The technology of personal VTOL transportation is “expanding and will soon be exploding,” says Bushnell, with at least a dozen individuals and groups in the United States now competing to produce a safe, dependable aircar. The U.S. Army and Navy are developing aircar-type vehicles for military applications, and a NASA researcher has also been working on a design. Most of the action seems to be in the United States, though at least one foreign company-Urban Aeronautics in Israel-is also in the race. These aircraft, Bushnell contends, are “not only feasible but inevitable.”

The development of aircars stems from a confluence of need, desire, and enabling technology. To gauge the need, one need look no further than our automobile-choked roadways. “Building virtual highways in the sky’ would be a modest technical achievement in the almost unused airspace above us,” insists Paul Moller, a California aeronautical engineer who thinks the automobile has had its day and has been working for many years to develop a flying car.

Beyond the clogged roads, there’s the problem of an increasingly dysfunctional airline industry. Airport hassles, delayed flights, fears of terrorism, and the rising threat of new infectious diseases such as SARS have made airline travel a stressful experience. Most people who fly do so out of necessity, not because they relish spending two or more hours in a cramped airplane seat with a bag of pretzels. Aircars, if they’re ever made practical, would let people zip across the city, or across the country, in their own flying machine.

What is making aircars  a more  imaginable  possibility is information technology. Thanks to highly sophisticated and compact computers, GPS and other advanced navigational technologies, and aerial collision-avoidance systems, it is possible to build aircraft that, through a combination of on-board guidance systems and ground control, would fly themselves. The “operators” of an aircar would simply get into the vehicle, key in (or maybe just speak) their destination, and let the vehicle, like some futuristic flying carpet, carry them up and away. Moller contends that current airplane navigational systems could handle most of a flight, except for takeoffs and landings. Fully automated flights from beginning to end, he readily admits, would require a new system.

A system that could serve as the starting point for controlling personal VTOL aircraft is the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS). A joint project between NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, SATS aims to outfit a nationwide system of more than 5,000 small airports connected by virtual-yes-“highways in the sky” for the use of a new generation of small, safe, easy-to-fly, and inexpensive airplanes. NASA and the FAA expect the system to be fully operational after about 2015.

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