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DARPA Looks to Make a Flying Car

It is about time. After years of disappointment at the distinct lack of jetpacks and hover boards that our starry eyed childhoods promised us, the world might finally be ready to develop a real flying car, via the military.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has asked the Pentagon for additional funds to help develop the Transformer (TX) vehicle for use with military personnel in combat situations. For those unfamiliar with DARPA, it is an office in the Department of Defense that is responsible for attempting to create pretty much everything you have ever seen in a sci-fi movie that has some military applications. Artificial Intelligence, cyborg limbs and laser guns are all listed in its 2011 budget. Seriously.

While there have been a few pretenders over the years, most of the previous “flying cars” were simply very small planes or gliders that either required a runway, or assistance from another vehicle to achieve flight, not to mention very specific instructions on how to fly the vehicle. The Transformer TX would be designed for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), and operated by anyone that can drive a car with no special training. Just like the cars in Blade Runner.

This isn’t DARPA’s first foray into the automotive industry. It has hosted several competitions to encourage auto makers to develop robotic automated cars, capable of driving themselves.  The competitions failed to produce a working robotic system that would act autonomously, but it did help to make significant advancements in the on board computer systems of cars that are on the road today.

The Transformer TX would be designed to carry four troops with full gear, and have a range of 250 miles on a single tank of fuel. It is being designed with combat in hostile terrains in mind – especially places where roadside IED mines have become a real threat.

“TX will enable enhanced company operations of future missions with applicable use in strike and raid, intervention, interdiction, insurgency/counterinsurgency, reconnaissance, medical evacuation and logistical supply,” the official solicitation stated.

If the TX is a success and a practical, working model does become common, the consumer market can’t be far behind. It has seemed to be a given that one day, cars would break away from their gravity prisons, if for no other reason than flying cars are awesome. Add in always growing road congestion, increasing premiums on available space and competition in the auto field to find the “next big thing”, and sooner or later a flying car would emerge. And again, flying cars are awesome. Despite the fact that even the world’s largest automaker, Toyota, has the occasional car that can’t brake (paired with the horribly ironic inability to stop accelerating), the technology for a safe flying car is available, but it is not yet practical for widespread manufacturing.  So it might still be awhile before the fight for downtown parking becomes three dimensional.

Although there has been no indication from DARPA of any intent to release the technology to the public, it seems inevitable. After all, the Humvee began as a military vehicle before reaching the private sector.  The proposed price tag also presents a problem. At the current estimated price of $55 million, even the wealthiest athletes and oil tycoons would be hard pressed to find room in the garage for the TX.

Assuming the AI in the DARPA labs does not become self aware and kill us all, the first prototype models could begin to terrorize pigeons and other winged animals in 2015.