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Personal Air Vehicle

Until recently, the concept of a "flying car" has for the most part been merely the stuff of dreams and movies, like "Bladerunner" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang." Thanks to aerospace engineer Carl Dietrich and his team, the idea that a personal transportation vehicle could be driven like a car, and also fly like an airplane, is getting much, much closer to reality.Dietrich

Born in northern California in 1978, the Sausalito native enjoyed building model airplanes with his father as a child and by the age of eight, he knew he wanted to be an aerospace engineer one day. It was then that he began saving money to take flight lessons. He earned his pilot's license at age 17.

Next, Dietrich entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a major in Aeronautics and Astronautics. He earned a B.S. in 1999 and an M.S. in 2003. He continued his studies at MIT in pursuit of a doctoral degree in Aero/Astro, which he expects to complete in 2006.

At MIT, Dietrich made a name for himself in a variety of ways, including becoming the youngest-ever winner of the MIT Aero/Astro XVI, XVI award; winner of four undergraduate design competitions; and winner of two MIT IDEAS competition prizes, one for his design of a de-mining tool that has been tested by the United Nations. For his Master's thesis, Dietrich designed a potentially more efficient, more reliable and less expensive rocket engine. He holds a patent for this Centrifugal Direct Injection Engine (CDIE), which operates without a turbo-pump pressurization system. He also founded the MIT Rocket Team in 1998 to develop a sub-orbital rocket.

The concept of a flying car is not exactly new, after all. Many have attempted to create such a craft since the Wright brothers completed their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1913. In 1917, Glenn H. Curtiss made a short flight in his autoplane, which ultimately failed, and Felix Longobardi was awarded a patent for a vehicle capable of driving on surface roads and flying through the air in 1918. Henry Ford tried out a similar vehicle, but abandoned the project when a friend died in testing the device. A relatively successful concept was developed in the 1950s by Molt Taylor, but was never mass-produced. There have been at least 60 other published concepts, and today other companies, such as Sacramento, Calif.-based Moller Intl., are working on designs for such a vehicle as well.

Dietrich is hoping that the timing, design and efficiency of his vehicle, dubbed the Transition, will make it an historic success. The Transition is designed for consumers to use as an alternate, but not a replacement, for the family car, for trips between 100 and 500 miles. It would weigh approximately 1,320 pounds, hold two adults and luggage, use a 100 horsepower engine, and could travel 500 miles on one tank of gas. The driver would keep it in his garage, drive it like a car on surface roads to the nearest local airport, lower the 27-foot wings, which, when in "car mode" are folded to stick up on the sides, and taxi to the runway. After takeoff, the Transition would cruise at an altitude of between 3,400 and 8,000 feet with the ability to fly up to 12,000 feet. After landing, the driver-pilot would transition the vehicle back into a car and could then drive it around at his/her destination.

One of the keys to the product's success, according to Dietrich, is that the Federal Aviation Administration in 2004 revised regulations on light sport aircraft, reducing the amount of training required for people seeking licenses to operate these vehicles. The Transition would fall under the newly named class of Personal Air Vehicle, and would require a Sport Pilot's license to fly. Users of such craft could take advantage of the more than 5,000 local airports in the country, many of which are currently underutilized.

In addition, the design of the Transition includes novel, automatically folding wings, can run on regular unleaded gasoline, and includes safety features such as a GPS navigation system, electronic center of gravity calculator, airbags, front and rear crumple zones, and patent-pending deformable aerodynamic bumpers. Dietrich has four patents pending on technology related to the Transition. With fellow MIT graduates Anna Mracek and Samuel Schweighart, he founded Terrafugia, Latin for "escape from land," in 2004 to develop the product and bring it to market.

The Transition is expected to be priced at around $130,000-$150,000 when it makes its debut, however, as of this March 2006 writing, Terrafugia is still working on its first fully functioning prototype. The design won MIT's $1k competition for the consumer products division in 2005, and in Feb. 2006, Dietrich was named recipient of the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for the Transition and for his body of work as an MIT student.

Concurrent with his work at Terrafugia, Dietrich is working on a doctoral thesis that involves improving efficiency for a desktop-sized penning fusion reactor. His research includes the study of inertial electrostatic confinement fusion for spacecraft power and propulsion.

[March 2006]

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