Flying car wins MIT prize

The Ford automobile and the airplane came on the American scene in 1903. Both were considered technological marvels of the modern age and it wasn’t long before inventors sought a way to combine the two and produce a flying car. Although many have tried, no one has been able to come up with a design that has been embraced on a commercial level.

Carl Dietrich, a 28-year-old Ph.D. candidate in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, may be the one to end that streak. He recently won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for his design concept of a flying car. The 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 panel of MIT alumni and associates, including scientists, technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs, chooses the winner.

A private pilot, Dietrich’s design was inspired by the fact that he has found it hard to use a small airplane for personal travel.

“I’ve never been able to use my private pilot’s license to really go anywhere,” he says. “If a storm pops up, for example, you have to land and wait it out. You’re stuck. One of the big things to sell the design is that the wings fold up when you’re on the ground and you have the option of continuing on the ground at highway speed and you don’t have to leave part of the airplane behind.”

Dietrich acknowledges that this design, dubbed Transition, is not the first to use folding wings. Molt Taylor, a flying car designer who made a splash in the 1950s, created a design that had folding wings. Taylor’s car resembled a cross between a two-place golf cart and a VW Beetle. The wings had to be detached manually and placed on a trailer to be towed behind the cab or left at the airport.

With Dietrich’s design, the wings will fold with a push of a button and the propeller will disengage. He plans to use a mix of construction techniques to create a machine that will fit in a one-car garage. The design will have a 27-foot wing span (that’s 10 feet shorter than a Cessna 172) and will be able to carry 430 pounds.

“Folding wings have been done before with great success,” notes Dietrich. “The F-18 has them and they are capable of pulling nine Gs.”

The emphasis is on making the design practical and roadable. There are some self-imposed limitations.

“We’re trying to take a practical approach and make it fit inside the Light Sport Aircraft category,” he continues. “That limits us to 1,320 pounds, so basically we have the weight budget of the space program. For the engine we are baselining using a Rotax 912. We are also putting out a contract for a competitive bid. We will have to custom design the power transfer unit. We are looking at an engine in the 100 horsepower range. We may develop the most highly engineered LSA on the market. We have the resources to throw at it and be practical. We think we can attract pilots like me who will be able to use the design for practical travel.”

With the help of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, Dietrich and four other MIT students have 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. The company plans to have a proof of concept model on display at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

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