Thinking Tech

A new flight challenge: tiny airports for tiny planes

A new flight challenge: tiny airports for tiny planes

Posting in Design

You'd catch the plane by walking to a "pocket airport" in your neighborhood.

NASA's Green Flight Challenge is already scheduled for next summer -- nine teams are competing to design an aircraft that can fly 200 passenger miles on a gallon of fuel for a $1.65 million prize.

But in a paper made public today, Dr. Brien Seeley, who's the president of CAFE, the foundation that's running the challenge, asks NASA to add two more contests over four more years so teams can create a new class of aircraft -- "Green, Quiet, vertical or extremely short take off and landing aircraft" -- the GQ V/ESTOL aircraft -- that would operate out of very small airports situated within walking distance of offices and homes.

Seeley argues that our current aviation system has hit gridlock, and that the technology required to create these small electrical aircraft -- which would be very quiet, carry up to six passengers, run on small amounts of power, and operate at a "pocket airport" about the size of a football field, with runways shorter than 400 feet -- is within reach.

Such planes would require a much more sophisticated air traffic control system, but NASA and the FAA are already working on that. Here's how Seeley thinks a pocket airport could work:

As our NextGen [air traffic control] system becomes implemented, higher density operations at pocket airports could be enabled. One possible future operational model for the pocket airport is that of the virtual “portal”. Each pocket airport could have both a departure and an arrival portal. Upon landing, an aircraft close to the airport would be flown by its human pilot through the arrival portal, at which point full automation would complete a pinpoint landing. Likewise, take off and climb out would proceed automatically until the aircraft passed through the departure portal, at which point the human pilot would assume control and fly a prescribed 4D trajectory (space plus time) to the destination airport’s arrival portal. In the more distant future, as greater understanding of the ideal human-machine interface comes online, an alternative ratio of piloting and automation might supervene.

Small planes would also be superior to flying cars, Seeley points out, because the cars are heavy and can't land in your driveway -- you'd have to drive them home from the airport.

Seeley is looking for comments on his paper, which you can get here. It has much more detail on the proposed advantages of his scheme and on the technology needed to pull it off. If I reach Seeley or NASA, I'll update this post.

The plane in the picture, by the way, is called the Puffin -- it's NASA engineer Mark Moore and his team's idea of a personal electric vehicle. Here's an animation of the Puffin from Discovery News:

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure