From the Jetsons to Blade Runner to James Bond to a multitude of other TV shows and films, popular culture has long been fascinated with the idea of flying cars. Now, the U.S. military is pursuing them--and it wants to take the public along with it.
But can science fiction be turned into science fact? That's the aim of the U.S. Air Force's Agility Prime initiative.
The service is racing to acquire "flying cars"--electric vertical take-off and landing, or eVTOL, platforms--that can carry troops and equipment in ways that offer advantages over today's military aircraft and vehicles. The systems are also referred to as "orbs," advanced air mobility or urban air mobility.
"The vehicles that we're exploring ... [have] a lot of propellers that get you up" in the air, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper told reporters during Agility Prime Launch Week. "They're vertically oriented and then they transition over to being forward [oriented]. And there are multiple ideas and designs about how to do that."
Most of the designs include tiltrotor or thrust vector control that would enable the platforms to take-off and land vertically like a helicopter but fly more like an airplane, he noted.
The concept may sound similar to the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft that Air Force Special Operations Command and the Marine Corps currently use. But officials noted there are significant differences between the envisioned orbs and the rotary-wing assets in today's inventory.
The latter are "generally pretty expensive, they're generally pretty loud ... and they're a little bit hard to fly," said Brig. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy director of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability office. Officials want new systems that are quieter and smaller, less pricey and easier to pilot.
Key attributes of advanced air mobility vehicles would include: electric/hybrid propulsion and electric power source; manned, remote or autonomous operational capability; vertical takeoff and landing; and commercial off-the-shelf. All would hover on rotors, but some may also have wings, according to Col. Nathan Diller, Agility Prime team lead.
The systems would be different than airplanes or automobiles, which require runways or roadways that could be destroyed by enemy fire or might not be available where U.S military forces are operating. They would not be like today's drones because they would carry people, nor would they be like helicopters because they won't be "big, loud and expensive to build," according to a presentation slide.
Roper estimated the price tag at a few hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars per unit.
The anticipated lower lifecycle cost is a major draw for acquisition officials.
"What I love about these eVTOL vehicles, because they're driven by hybrid and electric automotive technology, they appear to be exceptionally inexpensive to sustain and operate, which is a complete paradigm shift from...