A computer generated image of NASA's flying vehicle (NA... A computer generated image of NASA's flying vehicle (NASA).

In a project straight out of Star Wars -- or maybe an April Fool’s edition of Popular Mechanics -- the U.S. Defense Department is working on a flying car that can carry four soldiers into combat.

This machine is supposed to take off and land vertically, fly at speeds up to 120 knots, drive on roads up to 80 mph, and go off-road up to 30 mph. It must be simple enough for any Marine to fly, it must be quiet, and it must carry enough fuel to stay aloft for two hours.

They’re calling this machine the Transformer.

It’s easy enough to make fun of something like this. But the agency in charge is DARPA -- that is, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. You know, the guys that invented the Internet...

By Defense Department standards, Transformer is small potatoes. This project has a budget of $6 million this year, enough to gather a bunch of inventors in a room and ask them to develop a prototype.

Which is exactly what DARPA did during a workshop in Washington D.C. on Jan. 14. About 150 people showed up -- mostly representing small businesses that you’ve never heard of, but also a few big dogs like Boeing and Raytheon.

Whoever wins this contract is supposed to produce a working prototype in four years. While I wouldn’t bet a plugged nickel on this project, I admit I got intrigued. Here’s what I found out:

While DARPA hasn’t awarded any contracts yet, developers have conducted some intriguing test flights of vehicles that can take off vertically, then fly like a plane. The Brits managed this feat a couple of decades ago when they developed the Harrier fighter jet.

This time, the trick is to make them small, light and quiet.

NASA already has taken a shot at it. The agency has built a one-man flying machine called the Puffin. The contraption is powered by two propellers driven by an electric motor and lithium ion batteries.

The agency has built a one-third size scale model, and it will be ready for testing in March. If you watch the video, you can see how it is supposed to fly.

Dr. Mark Moore, an aerospace engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, is excited about the Puffin’s potential. In theory, it will cruise at 150 mph. Yet, the contraption is quite small -- just 12 feet long, with a wingspan of 13 feet.

Since it’s built with carbon fiber composites, the Puffin weighs just 297 pounds, plus another 99 pounds of batteries.

When I chatted with Moore about the Puffin, he was bubbling with excitement... until we talked about the Jeep portion of the mission. That’s the tough part, says Moore.

For every pound you add to accommodate wheels, suspension and other Jeep needs, you have to add five more pounds of wings, propellors, etc. to lift that extra pound off the ground.

Moore says he supports the Marines’ vision of Transformer as a dual-mission flying Jeep. But it’s clear he’s a lot more enthused about the Puffin’s potential as a small, cheap flying machine that can land or take off anywhere.

He won’t admit it, but I think he’d just as soon forget about the Jeep portion of the mission. Anyway, Moore thinks we may be seeing Puffin-like contraptions in civilian use.

“In five years, you’ll be amazed to see what people are doing,” he predicts.

If so, DARPA once again will demonstrate its knack for inventing military devices with civilian applications. At the moment, though, it doesn’t look like the Puffin will be the flying Jeep that the Marines are looking for.

But NASA has been working on some other promising developments. In 2006, it built a tail-fan, which is basically a seven-blade propeller housed inside a large metal tube. In theory, the tail fan could be used to power the vehicle straight up, allow it to fly like a plane, and also provide propulsion for the vehicle in Jeep mode.

Powered by an LS1 Corvette engine -- yup, you heard it right -- the tail fan was both durable and quiet.

Moore was impressed by Corvette motor’s performance and low cost. You can buy a small-block Chevy engine for $3,500 or so, while a conventional small-plane engine can cost ten times as much. What’s the downside? It was a bit heavy.

And those prototype tests never addressed the Jeep portion of Transformer’s mission.

Which leads us to the private sector. There are plenty of inventors out there who are been tinkering with flying cars, and some have even built prototypes.

The Terrafugia Transition, called “a roadable aeroplane” by its inventors, is basically a small plane with fold-up wings.

It has a cruising speed aloft of 115 mph, and it is said to attain highway speeds on the road. But it can’t take off vertically, and it clearly is too ungainly for off-road use.

Then there’s the Parajet Sky Car, a dune buggy powered by a big propulsion fan on the back -- the kind that power those water skimmers in the Everglades. To hoist the Sky Car aloft, you attach it with cables to an inflatable para-sail.

Sure enough, this vehicle gets off the ground.

But it feels like a stunt more than a serious vehicle. And no, it can’t take off vertically.

Which leaves us back where we’ve begun. Trend-spotters would do well to keep an eye on Dr. Moore and his Puffin. But he would be the first to admit that the current version is no flying Jeep.

The Marines may have to wait awhile. As for me, I’d put some money on the table for a flying car built a few years back by Jesse James, host of Monster Garage. As a lark, he carved up an old Panoz Esperante and tacked on a wing.

If you appreciate vehicles with attitude, it was featured on the cover of the July 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics. I’d like a red one, please.



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