How to Avoid Traffic:
The Roadable Aircraft Brings a Solution Near
A team of eight is working on the proof-of-concept prototype, slated for completion in 2008
Driving along the highway in Woburn, Massachusetts, it is easy to pass by the nondescript entrance for the small street labeled Cranes Court. A short distance down the street, one will approach a one-story, concrete building that looks like a warehouse – among buildings with a similar façade. A closer look at the middle facility reveals a small sign to the right of the door that is labeled Terrafugia, Inc., which signifies home to the Transition®, a roadable aircraft vehicle under construction, and a testament to the hotbed of activity stirring within the walls.
The Transition concept was invented by 2006 winner of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize Carl Dietrich, who strives to get the Transition off the ground as CEO of Terrafugia. Inside the Terrafugia development facility, two modest-sized garages house large exterior molds for the Transition's fuselage or aircraft body; a small model of the vehicle hangs above from the ceiling. Recently, the team built a full-size exterior mock-up of the hybrid vehicle using polyester resin, fiberglass and wood.
In the spring of 2006, Dietrich and fellow MIT graduate students developed a business plan for the Transition and founded Terrafugia. The business plan placed as the Business Venture Runner-up in MIT's $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. In the summer 2006, the team displayed graphics and a wind tunnel model at the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) AirVenture, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The exposure at the tradeshow generated excitement from investors and prompted deposit orders.
Incorporated in May 2006, Terrafugia grew to seven full-time and several part-time employees within two years, including senior engineer and 2002 winner of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize Andrew Heafitz. Dietrich approached Heafitz because of their previous collaboration with the MIT Rocket Team. Terrafugia co-founders Anna Mracek Dietrich, who is COO of Terrafugia, and Samuel Schweighart, VP of Engineering for Terrafugia, also met through the MIT Rocket Team.
"I was impressed with the business end of the Transition," said Heafitz, "and the project itself looked incredibly fun and challenging. It is very similar to a solar car, which is something I dabbled in before." Heafitz has 18 years of experience building and racing solar and electric vehicles, which are constructed with lightweight, composite materials – a key component to the Transition's design.
Initial design work for the Transition began in Heafitz's MIT basement office. The design process went slow at this stage, since it was juxtaposed with fundraising.
To date, the Terrafugia team's most challenging design feat has been the proof-of-concept folding wing, which spans approximately 11 ft. each and is constructed with carbon fiber and Kevlar® composite materials. Unlike other light-sport aircraft wings, the folding wings feature two blue bumper strips on each tip to protect against door dings when the vehicle is parked. Milo Mracek – former engineering chief of design at McDonnell Douglas and Mracek Dietrich's grandfather – drafted the first generation plan for the wing-folding mechanism. The team perfected it and displayed the proof-of-concept wing at their second trip to the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in 2007. "It was very encouraging for people to see that we could actually build hardware and not just make snazzy computer graphics," remarked Dietrich.
Dietrich and Heafitz appreciate the time to tinker with ideas and problem solve. "Lots of very important details still require an inventive perspective to come up with new solutions," said Dietrich, "because a vehicle like this presents a lot of new problems that normal airplane manufacturers or car manufacturers don't have to deal with." As a result of the Transition's innovative design, the team is filing for several provisional patents, in addition to Terrafugia's four pending patents.
"Everything interacts with everything else in a vehicle like this. You have to keep the big picture in your mind when designing," said Dietrich. Recently, the team modified the windshield size, switched to front-wheel drive, designed a novel collapsible control stick, and created a full-size mock-up of the vehicle's interior.
"These sorts of details are very important to figuring out what the experience will be like to operate the vehicle," said Dietrich. "This becomes a big selling point to potential buyers when you can simulate what it's like to drive it."
The team's goal is to complete the proof-of-concept at the end of 2008 and begin flight tests for certification thereafter. Retired Col. Phil Meteer, a seasoned flight instructor, test engineer, and former pilot for the U.S. Air Force, is developing the Transition test-flight plan in collaboration with the National Test Pilot School in Mohave, California. He will also lead the test when the proof-of-concept is complete.
At least two phases of the production prototypes will be produced after the proof-of concept, and the Transition will also need a quality assurance plan for the manufacturing process. The earliest delivery date to customers is anticipated at the end of 2009.
Determined to flush out all the engineering challenges that arise from developing a hybrid vehicle, the team is quickly producing tangible results. Mracek Dietrich keeps her grandfather's advice in mind for inspiration as she works: "If you can think of it, you can build it and make it work."