"A mechanical voice says, 'Fasten seat belts.' The Sky Pony turns onto the runway and Myrtle is pressed back into her seat as the airplane surges forward. A few seconds later, she's off the ground and climbing steeply on her way to Lincoln."
Brien Seeley, President of the CAFE Foundation, opened last weekend's Sixth Annual Electric Aircraft Symposium by riffing on Garrison Keillor's homespun storytelling style with a tale of the year 2021 in which Myrtle, an elderly woman from Winona, Minnesota visits an old friend in Lincoln, Nebraska who needs her help. To get there as quickly and inexpensively as possible, she decides to take one of those new two-seat, all-electric, fully autonomous air taxies from a tiny "pocket airport" near her house. In this future, little airports like these dot the suburban landscape, making on-demand air travel easily accessible to millions of people in previously underserved communities, while advanced, electric airplanes make it affordable.
Brien's entertaining story laid out a bold vision for revolutionizing transportation, with a very aggressive timeline. It would be easy to dismiss his vision as mere dreaming if it weren't for last Summer's Green Flight Challenge, run by the CAFE Foundation at Santa Rosa Airport in California's wine country. As you've probably heard by now, team Pipstrel-USA.com won the challenge by achieving the equivalent of 403.5 passenger-miles per gallon—more than double the required efficiency. When the Challenge was first announced in 2009, nearly everyone said its goals were impossible, but both the Pipistrel and eGenius teams proved them wrong by far surpassing them.
This was so surprising mainly because no one expected the available battery technology to have enough energy density for the task. The Challenge demonstrated how fast this technology is improving, and I have no doubt that it will continue at this pace or faster in the coming decade. By 2021, a trip from Winona to Lincoln is solidly within the realm of possibility.
Many other advances will be required, however, to make this kind of on-demand, personal air travel possible, including ultra-quiet propellers and extremely short takeoff and landing (ESTOL) technology, which will probably require compact, powerful wheel motors to assist takeoff acceleration.
The biggie, though, is fully autonomous flight. It's an incredibly hard problem, and having worked with computers and software my entire adult life, I confess to finding the idea of entrusting my life to them, well, terrifying. Pilots understand that while the autopilot can often fly more smoothly than we can, it has no judgment. Anyone who's ever had to disconnect "George" to keep him from stalling the airplane knows that.
Fully autonomous autopilots will need to be able to see and avoid other aircraft and adverse weather, cope with unexpected conditions like clear air turbulence, and make all of the hundreds of decisions that throughout the history of flight have required the subtlety and sophistication of human judgment. But however improbable it may seem, lots of money is being poured into developing this technology and I have no doubt that it will eventually be perfected—and it will revolutionize transportation. (That is, if it can win over a skeptical public with a safety record superior to that of piloted aircraft.)
The benefits of the autonomous air taxi are beyond question: sustainability, accessibility, convenience, affordability, protection of passengers' "personal space"—the list goes on. The flights it makes possible will also introduce a whole new population to the incredible experience of travel by small aircraft.
There is one experience, however, that it will not make possible: the even more incredible experience of piloting a small aircraft. The challenge, the self-reliance, the satisfaction and fulfillment of being pilot in command will not be part of a Sky Pony passenger's experience. What will be the value of good old fashioned human skill and judgment in a world full of airplanes that can fly themselves?
Wait—isn't this an old Star Trek episode?
But there's also another possibility that I find myself considering: how many Sky Pony passengers will be inspired by their experience to become pilots themselves? Certainly far more people will be exposed to small aircraft travel, and the availability of affordable, reliable electric propulsion will make flight training and personal flying more accessible than ever before. Most of today's pilots were first bitten by the flying bug as passengers—that was certainly the case with me! So even for die-hard, control-freak pilots in command threatened by the specter of their own irrelevance, there's reason to hope.
No matter who's flying the airplane, I hope Brien's story comes true. We'll all benefit tremendously when it does.
Blue skies, Myrtle! We'll leave the runway lights on for you.
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