The next century of flight: inventing the Jetsons' car

One hundred years ago, the Wright Brothers looked to the skies above a thin strand of North Carolina sand and imagined something that the world had never before seen: a machine that could actually fly. In that spirit, Eric Feron looks to today's skies and imagines something slightly less bold, yet perhaps nearly as profound: a plane delivering his pizza.

On the centennial of humankind's first controlled flight - which lasted all of 12 seconds and extended 120 feet - a host of 21st-century Wright brothers are pioneering new forms of flight.

By the end of the second century of winged travel, they suggest, a handful of futuristic dreams will likely become a reality. Computers will be pilots, wings will change shape mid-flight, and yes, everyone could have a flying car.

The ideas range from the intriguing to the obvious, the far-fetched to the almost certain. Yet among many physicists and futurists, there is a growing sense that the ultimate arbiters of how far flight will progress this century will not be governments or scientists. Everyday Americans, they say, will determine the shape of science with their pocketbooks.

"The changes are going to come because of economic impetus," says Dr. Feron, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

That has not always been the case. To the contrary, the great advances of 20th-century aeronautics have been shaped by war and the threat of war - leading the federal government to dump billions of dollars into research and design. World War I advanced the world from cloth biplanes to steel-hulled aircraft. Jets emerged from World War II. And the entire American space program resulted from the Cold War.

In this emerging era of relative peace and prosperity, though, Americans' concern over their pocketbooks may prove to be more important than national pride or politics. If the past century was about winning military superiority and exploring the frontiers of flight, then the coming 100 years could be more about making flight more accessible to all.

Andrew Hahn thinks about that constantly. As a member of the Personal Air Vehicle project at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., his job, essentially, is to invent the Jetson's car. Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Hahn's aim is to turn the Technicolor dreams of past futurists and reshape them into something that could actually make its way into garages by 2103

It is, technically speaking, not a car at all, but rather a very small plane. It could seat five comfortably and take off and land in a field no larger than a baseball diamond. Hahn confesses that the laws of physics have confounded any hopes of instant levitation. But the prospect of taxiing a small air "car" with fold-up wings on neighborhood roads to the tiny local airfield doesn't seem too far-fetched.

He's heard of airport shops becoming malls for local residents. Why couldn't big malls add landing fields to serve as local airports for rural shoppers? Commuters could live farther from work and ease highway congestion. The goal, says Hahn, is to find a way that flying can fit into Americans' daily lives. "Before the Model T [introduced mass production], cars were toys for the rich," says Hahn. "Essentially what we're trying to do is invent a Model T for the air."

It is an ambitious project for a completely civilian purpose. But it also shows how, even in a time of relative peace, the military can be a primary incubator for innovation. After all, not everyone can be expected to be a pilot. In Hahn's air cars of the future, the driver would simply enter the destination into a computer and let the plane do the rest. At the moment, an essentially pilotless plane might unsettle air travelers. But futurists believe the next generation of military aircraft will fly without humans on board.

The military has already used small drone aircraft in the Middle East with significant success. As technology improves, and the computer systems become more reliable, remote piloting could soon spread to fighter jets and even cargo planes. Yet even 100 years in the future, engineers wonder if passengers could accept the idea of a pilotless jetliner.

For his part, MIT's Feron is thinking much smaller. He sees a battalion of tiny flying machines zipping over neighborhood rooftops, delivering packages, surveying a fire for the fire department, or taking that perfect overhead photo for a realtor trying to sell a house. "Flying machines can be of all sizes," says Feron. "You can build a machine at 10 pounds that has just as much computing power as big aircraft do."

To succeed in coming years, though, they must make economic sense - a realization that now permeates much of aerospace research. "There's a new generation of engineers that are cost savvy," says Feron.

They know that a lunar base is scientifically feasible but probably costs too much. They know that the promise of hypersonic travel could well arrive in the next 50 years - allowing passengers to jet around the world in superfast planes that would barely give them enough time to finish their peanuts between New York and Paris. But the now-mothballed Concorde casts doubt on whether anyone will pay the steep price.

Some engineers find hope in reports that President Bush is considering a plan that could return Americans to the moon. Others cite the X-Prize, a $15 million reward for anyone that can build a reusable spacecraft. The prize's sponsors hope it opens the door to a thriving space industry in the next century.

Even in the massive airline industry, John Douglass can see seeds of progress in the seemingly mundane. The two-level Airbus A380 will hold 600 passengers when it begins service in three years. The proposed Boeing 7E7 Dreamliner will be able to fly from any point on the globe to any other point without stopping, and will be constructed from new materials that combine light weight and heavy durability.

In the future, airlines may do away with moving flaps to steer and instead warp the wing through electric current - eliminating moving parts that could fail. And Boeing has considered ultra-efficient jetliners shaped like a huge flying wing, where passengers would sit in an auditorium-like cabin.

"Over the next 50 years, these sorts of advances are going to work their way into the commercial world," says Dr. Douglass, president of the Aerospace Industries Association in Washington. "We are going to see some of these [technological] barriers fall."

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