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A Flying Leap for Cars

By Olga Kharif George Jetson made it look so easy. The '60s-vintage TV-cartoon character would step from the bedroom of his sky-platform apartment onto a moving walkway to his flying car. And it would whisk him off to work. Back in the real world, even decades later, we can only wish.

Hopes for a flying car that eliminate the cursed traffic jam have seemed out of the question. Ever since the Wright Brothers took flight over 100 years ago, scores of enthusiasts have tried to create a flying car -- with disastrous results. In late 1940s, a device resembling an automobile tied under a small plane crashed in its third test. More accidents followed. Skeptics say pigs will fly before cars do.

Indeed, in a recent festival called Flugtag, in Portland, Ore., in which teams use homemade, would-be flying apparatuses to get across Willamette River, one group cheerfully went down with a splash in a device called a flying pig.

WHOLE NEW INDUSTRY? And yet, a flying car is suddenly less of a pipe dream or the stuff of cartoons. Giants including carmakers Honda (HMC) and Toyota (TM) are developing prototypes of small flying devices. Helped by advances in nanotechnology, microelectronics, and robotics, researchers from the likes of NASA, Carnegie Mellon University, and University of Florida are developing new flight-related technologies, designed to make piloting an aircraft easier than driving a car.

Even Tim Draper, founder of fabled Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which launched the online advertising company and others, has recently asked for proposals from outfits developing flying cars. Indeed, while an airborne vehicle may still be 10 to 20 years away, it's already making some VCs see green.

In theory, as everyone begins flying to work, these contraptions could dwarf today's $850 billion auto industry. The devices -- ranging from air taxis to personal flying machines -- could breathe life into aerospace companies' growth or create a whole new generation of startups. Best of all, some versions of this vision could start to come true within several years.

"ULTIMATE CHALLENGE." Air taxis, which would carry anywhere from four to eight passengers on shorter rides between smaller, now-underused airports, could become available in the next three to four years. Following in the footsteps of several startups, Honda has developed an experimental jet-powered air taxi, now in flight testing. In February, it announced it would manufacture, together with General Electric (GE), the economical jet engine Honda developed for the plane. With $75 billion in annual sales, the Japanese carmaker could eventually enter the promising air-taxi business as well.

With air taxis whizzing overhead, personal flying cars' arrival will only be a matter of time. If Robin Haynes has his way, they might even look a bit like the autos from The Jetsons. Haynes' device, called the Skyblazer, will look like a car -- and actually drive on the road -- as well as fly. With a push of a button, wings will fold out of the car's sides. "It's like the ultimate engineering challenge to me," Haynes says. "And I'd love to have one." His design ready, Haynes is one of the entrepreneurs talking to Draper.

Fold-Out Wings: Robin Haynes' Skyblazer

Some of Haynes' competitors don't have his money problems. Harry Falk, an accountant by training, got sucked into a flying-car project through an inventor-client. The original dreamer long ago quit the enterprise, but Falk and his team persevered. Last fall, they flew their device, a portable helicopter, for the first time. The prototype should be finished in 18 months, says Falk. The group gets funding from the Defense Advances Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

GOOD AS A HORSE. Here's how the device, which Falk says "is like a flying motorcycle," works: A person is strapped to what looks like a sturdy metal tower with a rotor on top. The pilot's left hand controls the accelerator, while his right hand twists a joystick to make turns. The machine, called Springtail, can hit speeds up to 90 miles an hour, and its 10-gallon tank of diesel fuel is good for 2.25 hours of flight. First, Springtail will be used by soldiers during battles within cities. Eventually, it will make its way into the civilian world, too, he predicts.

Hang On Tight: Harry Falk's Springtail

By then, the scientific community will have supplied some important technologies that are missing today but necessary to make this dream come true. To appeal to the mass market, flying devices have to be super-reliable, nearly impossible to collide, and easy to control. "We're trying to make an airplane like a horse," jokes Andrew Hahn, an analyst for NASA in Hampton, Va. "A horse doesn't want to be driven off a cliff. And if you're drunk and fall asleep, it's going to take you back to the barn." So Hahn is developing intuitive, easy-to-operate controls.

Eventually, piloting could be nearly automatic. Thanks to special intelligent software, four-foot-long robot helicopters developed by Carnegie Mellon can already fly along a designated route and spot a specific object, such as a small electronic label. At some point, their on-board sensors and analytical software should be able to discern obstacles like wires and birds, and differentiate between, say, trees and people, says Takeo Kanade, professor at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Then, human pilots might only need to turn the steering wheel or press the brakes, while their flying cars guide themselves.

THE GAMES NEURONS PLAY. Eventually, passengers might even be able to read the paper or eat breakfast while their flying car's brain does all the work. University of Florida researchers are hoping to use a bunch of living neurons -- located in a sealed dish on the ground -- to pilot a toy plane through the air.

The neurons, which are nerve cells found in the brain and the spinal cord, are connected to silicon chips that would communicate with the plane wirelessly. In today's experiments, however, they keep in touch through a long cable. Sensors on the plane collect information about its surroundings and pass their findings -- such as images of a fast-approaching building -- to the neurons, which then tell the plane to swerve away.

How do the neurons know what to do? Easy: They're trained through computer games. The brain cells get a pinch of an electric impulse whenever the virtual plane in the game bumps into obstacles, explains William Ditto, chairman of department of biomedical engineering at the University of Florida in Gainsville.

REGULATORY DOGFIGHT. Even if planes of the future do collide, they might be able to handle it a lot better than now. The U.S. Air Force Research Lab is developing special ways to effectively weave large parts of a plane out of supertough carbon fiber, reducing the number of gaps in the body and making its stronger. Weaving -- rather than assembling many small parts -- dramatically reduces costs. The Air Force is also developing so-called self-healing polymers, which can fill up gashes on a plane's body, says Doug Bowers, associate director for air platforms at the Air Force.

Of course, getting to commercial use will take years. Plus, regulatory battles -- revolving around complex topics like air-traffic control -- still remain to be fought. The first round will begin as air taxis make mass appearance. "If air taxis really work, the regulatory environment would modernize," says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with aerospace and defense consultancy Teal Group in Fairfax, Va. That would make the going easier for later-generation, personal devices.

Sure, the flying car is a long way off. But chances are, cars will eventually fly. Pigs won't. Kharif is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in Portland, Ore.

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