Flying cars may soon become a reality with Carnegie Mellon research grant

Credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor Credit: Maria Raffaele/Art Editor

Many technologies that were only dreams of science fiction, such as the talking devices or the central communication network of the Borg on Star Trek, have become a reality, and one more invention is set to be realized. The long-awaited flying car has been given the green light by the United States government, specifically the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a subsidiary branch of the Pentagon. On Oct. 12, a DARPA press release detailed information about the start of the highly-anticipated Transformer (TX) program, a project that will “combine the advantages of ground vehicles and helicopters into a single vehicle equipped with flexibility of movement.” The government has given Carnegie Mellon University the opportunity to help build the world’s first flying car.

In a press release nearly a month later from Carnegie Mellon’s department of Media Relations, the Robots Institute was issued a grant of $980,000 to create an “autonomous flight system” for DARPA to be used in the TX program over the next 17 months. Also tapped to participate in the first phase of the project is Lockheed Martin Corporation — a Maryland-based securities company specializing in aeronautics, space, and information systems — and AAI Corporation — an aerospace and defense technologies company. The two companies will be collaborating with the Robotics Institute to develop the design aspect of the TX vehicle. Others asked to participate in the effort by DARPA are Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, Aurora Flight Sciences partnered with ThinGap, and Metis Design Corporation.

The focus of the Robotics Institute’s research is the control aspect of the car. According to a DARPA press release, TX performers will focus on “develop[ing] mature propulsion systems, adaptable wing structures, advanced lightweight materials, the advanced flight control system, the air/ground configuration designs, and energy distribution systems.”

One of the main leaders on the project for Carnegie Mellon is professor Sanjiv Singh, who is associated with the Robotics Institute as a research professor and the mechanical engineering department as an adjunct faculty member. Singh has both a master’s (’92) and doctorate (’95) in robotics from Carnegie Mellon. One main focus of his current research is autonomous navigation, which tackles the issue of “motion planning and real-time control for ground and air vehicles,” according to his website. This technology is currently being implemented in one of Singh’s projects, the Combat Medic UAV — a helicopter that can execute locating, landing, and extraction portions of a rescue mission in a semi-autonomous fashion.

“[It’s the] automation of a full-scale helicopter, and while it was done before the new project with DARPA started, the core technologies are relevant,” Singh said.

The TX vehicle would embody a similar technology and help the military avoid the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or roadside bombs, for short. Having car and helicopter capabilities would allow soldiers to traverse a multitude of unknown and dangerous landscapes with relative ease. The estimated specifications would allow such a flying car to carry four people and 1,000 pounds for 250 miles. In an article from Defense Technology International last April, the U.S. Marine Corps has already expressed interest in such a technology. One challenge faced by the researchers, however, is getting the adequate car and plane technologies up to snuff for battle; the car “must be driven like a Humvee while on the ground, rapidly reconfigure for flight, then change back for ground operations.” This is where the Robotics Institute comes in — the flying car must possess vertical take-off and landing technologies in order to be combat-suitable.

“In practical terms, that means the vehicle will need to be able to fly itself, or to fly with only minimal input from the operator,” Singh said in a Carnegie Mellon press release. “And this means that the vehicle has to be continuously aware of its environment and be able to automatically react in response to what it perceives.”

According to Singh, Carnegie Mellon was selected after responding to an open solicitation. “Carnegie Mellon had a strong proposal because we have a track record of successfully taking on challenging topics which require both innovation and engineering expertise,” he said.