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'Pocket airports' would link neighborhoods by air


December 16, 2010

The CAFE Foundation proposes the development of small, neighborhood airports, at which autonomous electric Suburban Air Vehicles could take off and land

The CAFE Foundation proposes the development of small, neighborhood airports, at which autonomous electric Suburban Air Vehicles could take off and land

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A little over a year ago, we told you about NASA’s Green Flight Challenge that is offering US$1.6 million in production funds to the winning design for a for low-cost, quiet, short take-off personal aircraft, that require little if any fossil fuel. The competition, to be decided next July, is being run by NASA’s light-aircraft partner CAFE (Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency), which envisions the resulting Suburban Air Vehicles (SAVs) taking off and landing at small neighborhood “pocket airports.” At last week’s Future of Electric Vehicles conference, CAFE president Dr. Brien Seeley outlined just how those airports would work.

“The shocking news is, that after a full century of flight, aviation still fails to fulfill the fundamental purpose of moving people fast without need of roads,” he began. “We now believe that green technology can solve this.”

According to Seeley, by the time travelers have made their way by ground to their city’s one main airport, and then traveled again by ground from the destination airport to their final destination point, the speed with which the waiting airliner will get them there has been negated. The solution, he explained, is 2 to 4-passenger SAVs that could ferry people between the main airports and conveniently-located pocket airports.

The Green Flight Challenge, he explained, is just the first step in NASA’s plan to develop a new aviation infrastructure, in which quiet, auto-piloted aircraft would deliver people and goods on a point-to-point basis, within communities. In order to qualify for the prize, planes will have to get at least 200 mpg (1.18 L/100km), go at least 100 mph (161 kph), emit no more than 78 decibels from a 250-foot (76-meter) distance, and have a take-off distance, clearing a 50-foot obstacle, of less than 2,000 feet (or a 15-meter obstacle at 610 meters).

For its pocket airports concept, however, CAFE would like to see those requirements ultimately taken even further – Seeley said that his group envisions SAVs that get well over 200 mpg, cruise at over 120 mph (193 kph), emit less than 60 dBA from 125 feet (38 meters), and have the ability to take off in a distance of under 100 feet (30.5 meters). Safety would also be a major consideration.

“This is what the SAV would offer you: a fast vehicle with an open road and no traffic,” he said. “The pathway you get through the sky is de-conflicted, so there’s no one else on that road, and you go directly where you want to go.” The various planes’ flightpaths would be coordinated by a central control system, to keep them from flying into one another, and each SAV would be equipped with a parachute.

The basic single-runway pocket airports would be no larger than two acres (0.8 hectares) in size, and located in greenbelts just outside major urban areas. They would be capable of 120 operations per hour, as rows of SAVs/air taxis would wait for their turn to take off, one going every 30 seconds. CAFE also has designs for a 4-acre (1.6-hectare) airport that would have three runways arranged in a triangle, that would be capable of 260 operations per hour, plus an 8-acre (3.2-hectare) version with two end-to-end runways (with a large space in between them), and a 12-acre (4.8-hectare) version with two sets of the end-to-end runways and parking for 320 ground vehicles.

The airports would require SAVs to be capable of a very steep take-off, as the planes would have to be at least 150 feet (46 meters) in the air by the time they cleared the airport’s boundaries – “high enough to not be heard by the back yard barbecuers in the residences nearby.”

Development of such vehicles won’t happen overnight, needless to say. Once the first Green Flight Challenge is over, CAFE would like to see a second one take place in 2013, that would award US$2 million for the development of ultra-quiet, ultra-short-runway SAVs, followed by a third one in 2015, that would offer up US$2.35 million to whoever is able to make the winner of Challenge #2 autonomous.

“The gridlock we face now is going to get worse,” Seeley stated, citing research into congestion on the world’s roads. “This is a form of insanity... We need to travel in 3D.”

All images courtesy Dr. Brien Seeley

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Why use planes when helicopters seem to be much better for this purpose?

Secondly, make them personal devices so that everyone can have their own. Not many people want to ride in a bus or fly in an airplane, and the same amount of people will want to do it in these SAVs. No one likes being crammed into anything like cattle.


Great! TSA pornovision and groping coming to a neighborhood airport near you.

Sterling Allan

Think about the following: - SAV´s will have to operate safely in ANY kind of weather, day or night. Zero visibility, high wind, any kind of precipitation, icing conditions; today´s aviation still has many problems coping with adverse weather. - Urban trunk roads carry many more vehicles per hour than one every 30 seconds. That would be rush hour in the country. - Howmany cars are added to traffic every day week or year? To avoid gridlock on the ground we´d have to risk gridlock in the air it seems. The article mentions ´a system´to control the SAV´s, but does such a system exist and is it dependable? Remember that aviation is a conservative world, because falling from the sky, parachute or not, is far worse than pulling over to change a flat tire. Falling means avoiding powerlines, busy roads, houses, and all other sensitive objects on the ground. A pretty tough order in any urban environment.

Autonomous cars will win this match hands down. Simply because existing infrastructure can be used and taking the human out of the circuit will improve safety to the point that driving will become the safest way to travel, by far. Apart from that, pedestrians and cyclists will benefit from the safety factor inherent to computer controlled vehicles. Thirdly capacity of existing infrastructure will increase enormously. And last but not least, the real reason autonomous cars will win is that they, like now will park in front of your door or very close. No need to get out, and you can read, work, or just sleep on the way to work.

A pity, I love to fly..

Bas Klein Bog

Not necessarily, if an air taxi service is the only authorized party using the airport they could just not run air taxis during inclement weather.

What would be very interesting would be if it would be possible to launch these from the tops of buildings downtown out to satellite airports for easier travel in that direction. Maybe the roofs of some larger buildings or parking structures could be airports as well for landing into the city.


What Bas Klein Bog said.


By the way, my reason for TSA griping is not just their illegal violagion of civil rights protected by the Constitution, but the fact that the REAL TERRORISTS are within our government, who were complicit in the placement of demolition charges in the three WTC buildings, enabling them to come down at freefall, or near-freefall speed, into their own footprint, turning the concrete to powder as it fell, with molten metal showing up from the continue thermitic reactions for a month after the buildings fell; and building 7 wasn\'t even hit by a plane.

We should be putting scanners on all congressmen and other politicians, and getting rid (i.e. Guantanamo groping [just kidding, let\'s not stoop to their low level]) of any who are involved in that continued conspiracy to establish a world police state.

Sterling Allan

Another concept worth considering is the TTWIG, Track Tethered Wing In Ground effect. The TTWIG is an AC powered high lift device that is forced to remain in Ground Effect Mode by a rolling tether connected to an above ground \"track\". The track provides both power and guidance and therefore can be automated to provide the services envisioned by those pocket airports in the article. Since it \"flies\" approx 40 ft in the air, it would not interfere with existing ground transport systems. Phil Poulos Northrop-Grumman


I think the concept CAFE is trying to get across is a return to the promise of helicopters and personal aircraft from decades ago. The very conservative nature of aviation, especially as fostered by the FAA, tends to supress novel approaches to multiuse aircraft (both roadable and flyable, for example), although several examples are finally emerging.

The infrastructure for air traffic control, as currently deployed, does not scale to SAVs in the volume hypothesized. However, a scalable approach could be found in a combination of automation in the aircraft and in control systems, and in the introduction of novel inflight management tools such as the \"Highway in the Sky\" guidance system. Synthetic vision and enhanced vision systems would be of great benefit both to current and future aviation endeavors.

In the long run, it\'s going to take some combination of surface transportation enhancement and aviation enhancement to get us out of the gridlock we currently \"emjoy\". If SAVs can be made that meet the fuel efficiency and noise limitations proposed, at a cost that\'s even marginally affordable, I see some degree of broad adoption. I can also envision light aircraft evolution toward the SAV design goals, but probably starting with the Experimental Aircraft Association. Come on Oshkosh, show us your stuff!

Gerry Creager

Sounds like a NASA nocturnal emission. Bas Klein Bog, above, got it right!

PS Will Sterling Allan please put cork in it. That war is over.


Call it a sky-bus, but tethered lighter than air (TLTA) is likely the closest we will get to this capability in the near future. Tether/tractor technology needs to mature, but this system would allow LTA craft to move in higher winds than free flight permits. It would essentially be a low cost monorail system on which a tether/tractor system controls the progress and direction of the LTA craft. The system could be enhanced with solar power capability on the LTA craft where and when feasible. Careful balancing of lift vs load would reduce friction on the monorail tractor and increase overall efficiency.

John Bowling

Holy smokes, this is going to take a complete departure from the airplanes and helicopters we know today. This application calls for lighter than air vehicles or something we do not yet admit will fly: a vehicle that travels on and between the earth\'s lines of flux.

GPS/Cell tower triangulation will be fine for guidance but anti-collision technology will also have to be made mandatory. Ideally, you would pull up in your plug-in electric vehicle and attach to the carrier only to be deposited at your destination coordinates and uncoupled - maybe your local airport or maybe your driveway.


There is already an established infrastructure of general aviation airports serving most towns and cities in the US and Europe, to try to use an airport with a smaller footprint would necessitate the use of helicopters.

I REALLY_like the autonomous air taxi idea - I had thought of a similar concept myself, but a 30 second cycle time is ludicrously unrealistic if not impossible, and electric power just doesn\'t have the power density or range to be feasible, it continues to be elipsed by hydrocarbon fuels. We will wait and see if George Bye\'s hybrid electric Cessna 172 will be able to perform...

A more feasible concept is to make the aircraft work like a small \'charter plane on demand\', aimed at business/premium travellers, basically with a \'taxi rank\' of passenger-carrying UAVs waiting at the airport which can remotely launch, complete a short-medium haul trip and then autonmously return to an original hub, with or without passengers.

The first step is autonomous CARGO, UAV technology is going to filter down to commercial use, FedEx and UPS will be the first to use it.


It\'s step in the right direction but has similar draw backs as taking the bus. It\'s only suitable if you just have to go directly from A to B, and you can\'t take anything bulky or heavy with you.

The best answer is a personal aircraft that can be used the same as we use our personal car/truck. It would have to be a vertical take-off and landing aircraft.

Traffic control wouldn\'t be a big problem or cost if some form of GPS is used along with pre-assigned flying elevations and times. For example, you have a permit to fly at 1520 feet while your neighbour\'s permit is for 1540 feet.


As people here have mentioned, what about flight safety? Who\'s gonna pick up the tab? No system is totally safe, but even with a crash safe plane, fully autonomous, there will be costs, high costs involved. Which insurer will be willing to play the game?! I am pretty sure the fees makes the economy of the idea just rediculous. And just as buses without human control it will never be popular - who will assist when you\'re getting mugged, or raped, or worse ?! - no matter what the bright minds think it will not become popular.

And what happens if the power fails, or there is a programming error?! Bad enough with cars that run wild when the accelerator and gearbox takes over control, but entire aircraft without anyone in control?! To me it sounds like model aircraft, and we all know that they come down dented most of the time!

Oh, it will become a hacker\'s dream come true, creating havoc in a great scale! The road infrastructure in the US is badly maintained, and more than one bridge has collapsed by itself, with no help from mother nature, except the ol\' friends rust and fatique. Maybe it is time to invest in ground infrastructure, before aiming for the sky?!


Perhaps one of the stupidest wishes for mankind propagated by NASA.

Commonsense is obviously not a priority item. Whilst it may seem sensible in areas where there is a lot of land like the mid-west in heavily populated ares who is going to want aircraft flitting overhead all the time. Privacy, noise, security, crashes, - the reasons why it is stupid are pretty solid. The reasons why we need for peopel to eaily flit around perhaps needs to be made more solid given all the apparent downsides.


Instead of NASA wasting money on this idea, why doesn\'t someone come up with a project that allows an employee to be virtually connected to their office work place from home? In some sense something similar to logmein that would allow the employee to access their companies private network securely.

That to me seems a better solution to reducing traffic consumption!

Tomasz Wawrzyczny-Than

I guess my problem with this is they are trying to solve a transportation problem and that somehow being \"green\" will make it fly better. The statement, \"We now believe that green technology can solve this." Why? How? If dirty technology can't solve it, why will Green?

The design outline still requires a good bit of space. To really tackle the transportation need, you either need a roadable design, as there will not be rental cars at all of these airports, or VTOL.

For roadable designs, you could easily find yourself "locked out" or "locked in" at an airport. This is especially a concern after normal business hours. Proponents for Terrafugia and others don't typically talk about this.

There are VTOL designs such as the Helodyne, The World's First Sport Utility Aircraft, that provide amphibious VTOL, good speed, range and payload. This ultimate Personal Aircraft, would expand your possibilities for flight. But still might not be the answer they are looking for.

VTOL Qwerty
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