MIT STUDENT WINS PRESTIGIOUS AWARD
FOR FLYING CAR AND OTHER INNOVATIONS
Carl Dietrich Awarded $30,000 Lemelson-MIT
Student Prize for Inventiveness
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (February 15, 2006) – Carl Dietrich sees
life’s irritations not as realities to tolerate, but as sources
of inspiration. The 28-year-old winner of this year’s $30,000
Lemelson-MIT Student Prize has recently found inspiration in America’s
congested highways and major airports.
The Ph.D. candidate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s
Aeronautics and Astronautics program received the prestigious award
for a portfolio of novel inventions, including a new Personal Air
Vehicle; a desktop-sized fusion reactor; and a lower-cost rocket
“Carl joins a long line of independent inventors who are
passionate about finding innovative ways to address society’s
fundamental problems,” said Merton Flemings, director of the
Lemelson-MIT Program, which sponsors the award. “He is not
afraid to tackle the challenges many inventors before him have abandoned.
Carl’s ability to look at big problems in creative ways and
come up with practical solutions makes him just the type of person
we look to honor with the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.”
Flight On Demand
Dietrich’s most recent invention is a Personal Air Vehicle
concept he calls Transition. It is a flying car that relies on the
nation’s thousands of underutilized public-access airports
to provide a practical transportation alternative to travelers whose
trips range between 100 and 500 miles.
“If you were taking a trip between 100 and 500 miles right
now, chances are you’d probably drive unless you were going
between two airport hubs,” Dietrich said. “Driving is
fine, but it can take you half a day to reach your destination,
and you are subject to unpredictable traffic. Commercial airlines
are effective for trips over 500 miles, but…they don’t
really attack the short-hop market very well. Personal Air Vehicles
open up a lot of possibilities in freedom to get around. They offer
convenience and flexibility to fit the traveler’s schedule.”
Dietrich’s Transition can be driven on any surface road and
requires only a sport pilot’s license to fly. The SUV-sized
vehicle can be stored in most home garages and has folding wings
that enable it to operate both on the ground and in the air. It
can carry two people with their bags up to 500 miles on a single
tank of premium unleaded gasoline.
The Transition also offers modern safety features including an
electronic center of gravity calculator (important for weight distribution
in flying mode), GPS navigation unit, front and rear crumple zones,
airbags, and patent-pending deformable aerodynamic bumpers. Since
the driver’s visibility is impaired when the wings are folded
up, a tiny camera system embedded in the vertical tails provides
direct views of blind spots.
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Timely Take Off
Dietrich admits a flying car is not a novel idea, but he points
to a confluence of circumstances that make the timing right for
it to finally take off. “Since 9/11, for the first time, average
door-to-door travel speed has really dropped substantially due to
a combination of increased security measures at airports and more
road traffic,” he noted.
He also calls Federal Aviation Administration regulations on light
sport aircraft that went into effect in 2004 “a huge opportunity
in general aviation.” The new regulations reduced the training-hour
requirements for people seeking light-sport pilot licenses, and
they reduced the amount of paperwork necessary to bring a certified
aircraft to market.
Dietrich and four MIT colleagues have recently launched a start-up
company called Terrafugia to further develop the Transition and
eventually bring it to market at a price that is accessible to the
traveling and business public.
“With the money from the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize,
I think we will be able to build a full-scale mock-up of the vehicle
to take to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture
convention in Oshkosh [Wis.],” Dietrich said. “Our goal
is to make a really solid impression and start taking refundable
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Beyond Freeways and Flight Plans
Dietrich has patents pending for the Transition’s overall
configuration, deformable aerodynamic bumpers, embedded lights and
license plate holder, and an RFID system for rapid access to local
airports. But his invention portfolio touches other fields, as well.
Dietrich co-founded the MIT Rocket Team and holds a patent for
his Centrifugal Direct Injection Engine (CDIE), a low-cost, high-performance
rocket propulsion engine. It operates without a turbo-pump pressurization
system, which greatly reduces its complexity and cost.
For his doctoral work, Dietrich is researching inertial electrostatic
confinement fusion for spacecraft power and propulsion. This research
grew out of an efficiency improvement he patented for a desktop-sized
Penning Fusion Reactor.
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A Child's Imagination Takes Off
“In my 30 years as a teacher [at MIT], I cannot recall a clearer
exponent of the Edison mindset,” said MIT Professor of Aeronautics
and Astronautics Manuel Martinez-Sanchez, one of Dietrich’s
recommenders for the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. “Carl
is routinely cycling back and forth between what is known and what
Dietrich traces his passion for invention and design back to the
dining room table of his family’s Sausalito, Calif. home where
he watched his father build model planes. He remembers one model
in particular, a Red Baron tri-plane that later hung from his bedroom
ceiling and inspired his desire to fly.
When he was eight years old, Dietrich began saving money to take
flight lessons and earn his pilot’s license, which he did
when he turned 17. In high school, he further developed his interest
in aerospace engineering. During his junior year, he designed a
remote-controlled airplane; his senior project was a full-scale
These days, Dietrich finds inspiration in large-scale challenges
that push the limits of his abilities and imagination. “The
things I get inspired by now tend to be fundamental problems, like
increasing personal mobility and finding better energy sources than
hydrocarbon fuels,” he said. “These kinds of grand-scale
things I try to adopt as my own personal goals. There are lots of
smart people with lots of resources working on these problems, certainly.
Still, I think there is a role that can be played by us independent
inventor types who are trying to think up other unique ways of working
on them. It never hurts to have a couple more people thinking about
big problems,” he said.
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About the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize
The $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is awarded annually to an
MIT senior or graduate student who has created or improved a product
or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system,
or demonstrated remarkable inventiveness in other ways. A distinguished
panel of MIT alumni and associates including scientists, technologists,
engineers and entrepreneurs chooses the winner.
About the Lemelson-MIT Program
The Lemelson-MIT Program aims to enable and inspire young people
to pursue creative lives and careers. It particularly encourages
young people to engage in invention and to pursue sustainable new
solutions to real world problems. It accomplishes this mission through
outreach activities and annual awards, including the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT
Prize, the largest single award in the United States for invention.
Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world’s most prolific inventors,
and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology in 1994. It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation,
a private philanthropy that celebrates and supports inventors and
entrepreneurs in order to strengthen social and economic life. More
information is online at http://web.mit.edu/invent.
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