Focal Plane: Personal aviation
This is the tenth instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it. Previous edition: Sporting Silliness.
A look inside the Pacific Technical University's Human Flight Laboratory is likely to cause one response in the average visitor: confusion. Large posters on the wall show a series of diagrammes, many showing propellors or some other form of moving element. Prototype models are stacked against a far wall, and two full scale pieces are placed on the large table in the centre of the room.
One looks kind of like two yardsticks attached end to end, with a complex array of rods attached at the centre and running into a box about twenty centimetres on a side and with a circular indentation at the bottom.
The other is a series of blue and white flexible tubes, with a number of other objects mounted at various places. There are twelve white boxes that each have two bell shaped hollows extending out, along with four somewhat larger boxes.
It turns out that we are looking at what the laboratory's director, Dr Keen MacSugar, hopes will someday become a spectacularly successful industry: personal aviation.
'Whole other dimension'
"When I got out of college," Dr MacSugar explains, "I had a job on the east side of Atlanta, Georgia. But I lived on the west side. You can see the problem."
Since then, he says, Dr MacSugar has been committed to developing a human flight system. Whereas most people feel that traffic problems should be solved by improving or adding roads, he takes a more holistic approach.
"The first few months when I was commuting, I kept hoping that there was some magic route somewhere that would get me to work in no time at all. But over time, I came to realise that I was always looking south, east, west, and north. I should have been looking up."
The skies were the solution to his problem. "I suddenly recognised that there was a whole other dimension to the problem," he says. "I had been thinking two dimensionally. I needed to be thinking three dimensionally. That was the change."
But would this idea really solve his problems, or would it just prove a dark alley? When he arrived at PTU as a graduate student eight years ago, he already had an idea for his doctorate thesis. "I had been working on ways to resolve traffic problems in major cities," says PTU professor of traffic sciences Dr Morgan Chairfield, "and then the department sent me a copy of Keen's statement of purpose from his application. I figured, what the hell. Maybe flight is the answer to the speedy commute."
Fighting the establishment
However, neither MacSugar nor Chairfield was prepared for the backlash they faced from the established traffic theorists. "We hadn't told many other faculty members about his ideas, which I think was a mistake," Prof Chairfield recalls in his office at PTU's campus in South Palos Verdes, CA, USA. "So when he presented his thesis proposal for the first time, the other professors were stunned. They didn't know what to think."
"There were several on the committee who wanted to turn down his proposal," says Dr Murielle Poschkins, at the time the chair of PTU's Department of Traffic Sciences. "First off, we really didn't expect him to come up with a design that would work. Second, a few of the members were of the opinion that his research would bring negative media attention, in the sense of 'Hey, look what they're paying this guy to do'. And on top of that, some said he just had a loud voice."
Nonetheless, MacSugar offered a tantalising glimpse of the future wherein people would be able to get around within a city quickly and conveniently. Combined with air travel, one could theoretically travel to any point within North America in a total of no more than eight hours, regardless of time of day.
"I think that turned out to be the major selling point - that personal air travel could be accessible to many more people at a given time, because it allows you to move vertically as well as latitudinally and longitudinally," Dr MacSugar says.
Base of operations
With the completion of his doctorate thesis, he had a design that he was ready to construct and test. Prof Poschkins, who made MacSugar's research possible in the first place by casting the decisive vote in the committee, again came to his aid. Her last act before retiring from active duty was to create the Human Flight Laboratory, allocating Dr MacSugar a room on the top floor of PTU's Beckham Institute for Traffic Studies.
Surveying his territory, Dr MacSugar describes the intent of the HFL. "Lin here is working on this design, the Head Helicopter." They indicate the double yardstick construct which we observed earlier. "She drew up the plans last year and has already produced her first."
"This unit will be ready for testing in about three weeks," promises Lin Liaodong. She was the first graduate student to join the HFL, and in her second year in the country, the Taiwan native offers even more promise than Dr MacSugar.
"I had a lot of reservations about the safety of the Head Helicopter, but Lin has done a good job addressing most of my concerns," Dr MacSugar tells us. "She's added quite a bit of clearance between the user's head and the blades, she's included a number of mirrors so that the user can see the surroundings, and she's got a very capable emergency battery. That allows you to land once your primary battery runs out, but it won't let you take off again until you recharge the primary."
Meanwhile, Dr MacSugar has himself been working with another graduate student, Kyle McBride, on the design that led to the creation of the HFL. "Well, here it is," beams MacSugar as he shows us the boxes on tubes. "The very first Personal Jet Assistant."
Preparing for takeoff
McBride gives us a quick explanation of the PJA. "These two units here are the fuel tanks. They can carry up to 200 kg of nonexplosive fuel, which equates to a total of twenty hours of hover time. These you strap onto your feet. These other two units attach to the fuel tanks. They're the main engines, and they offer up to 2000 N thrust each. Between them, that's enough to lift someone with a mass of 180 kg plus the rest of the flight system."
Whilst the main engines do most of the heavy lifting, the other twelve jets provide attitude control. "These provide a lower thrust, suitable for turning. How it works is, the main engines would turn on and push you up, and then these thrusters would fire, tilting you forward so that the main engines accelerate you forward as well as holding you up. Then, when you arrive, these jets would fire, tilting you back and braking your motion. You'd throttle down the main engines to bring yourself down for a landing."
Both the Personal Jet Assistant and the Head Helicopter are due to begin wind tunnel tests next month. The three members of the HFL hope that one or both of their designs will lead to a greater interest in personal aviation, and eventually to an increase in mobility in city areas. "So many cities around the world are full of exciting possibilities, whether you're into sports, theatre, museums, or whatever," says Liaodong. "Why shouldn't we be able to be where we want when we want?"
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