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The End of Solotrek 168

bobetov writes "For those of us fed up with gravity and gridlock, the Solotrek XFV personal VTOL aircraft has been the real IT. A Segway is a nice scooter and all, but this thing can fly. But it all comes down to dollars in the end, and, with a recent test-flight accident and a missed milestone, Trek Aerospace is calling it quits."
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The End of Solotrek

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  • In other news ... (Score:5, Informative)

    by j1mmy ( 43634 ) on Friday December 20, 2002 @10:45PM (#4934215) Journal
    The skycar [] is coming along nicely.
    • Yes it is. And has been for years.
    • If by nicely you mean slowly.

      I admire these guys for trying, and I'd love one to be available, but they've been working on it since the 1960's.
    • The skycar is coming along nicely.

      The car of the future...and always will be.

    • by jayratch ( 568850 ) <> on Saturday December 21, 2002 @12:05AM (#4934404) Homepage Journal
      "the civilian consumer pricing for SoloTrek XFV should be similar to that of a very high-end sports car."

      Are we talking British/Italian high-end? As in very very six figure? Judging from the looks of the thing, I would appraise it at maybe $25,000, and that's only because I work in the car business and know how cheap a $25000 car really is.

      vs. the Moller Skycar starting at half a mil (price of a Mclaren F1) and dropping over years to ~60k (price of a Cadillac Escalade).

      So the two "vehicles" are about the same price, while one seems to vie for Segway marketshare- and looks flimsier- while the other looks like it came out of Star Wars and seeks to obsolete the Interstates. Given the difference in function and appearance, I think its obvious why one lost funding.

      That and who wants to do any sustained flying in an unenclosed vehicle flying too low for a parachute to be effective?
    • Holy Smokes! (Score:3, Interesting)

      Under the Purchase Skycar link, they say this:

      As a result of the recent successful hovering flights of the M400 Skycar, Moller International is once again accepting $5,000 deposits to secure delivery positions for our M400 Skycar. Your deposit is entirely refundable and will bear interest at an annual interest rate of 5%

      Woa, 5%! That is better than you can get sticking your money in a Money Market account at the bank. Plus, the deposit is fully refundable! I gotta do this.
      • by tswinzig ( 210999 )
        Your deposit is entirely refundable and will bear interest at an annual interest rate of 5%

        They left out, "...unless we go bankrupt, in which case you will lose all your money, but that's HIGHLY UNLIKELY WE ASSURE YOU!"

      • Manditory:

        Burns: Are you acquainted with our state's stringent usury laws?
        Homer: Usury?
        Burns: Oh, silly me! I must've just made up a word that doesn't exist.
      • You do understand what happens to refundable deposits when the company that took the deposit goes out of business, right?

        Just stamp your head "creditor" and go sit in the corner.
      • of course, they only pay back if the company doesn't file for bankruptcy.

    • The Moeller was always interesting and it really does look great.

      Now they have finally performed some flight tests (only tethered so far), it is beginning to look realistic as a project. However from a techie viewpoint they have stated their vehicle contains 24 microprocessors and 24000 lines of machine code so proving the technical platform is an issue.

      First, WTF did they use assembler? Almost anything else would have been easier to bench test. Can't they simulate the hardware to a large degree so the software is properly checked?

      In any case, I'm glad to see the project progressing (and the price dropping). The only problem is that it will require a major change in the national flight infrastructure before it can be fully relised (the dumbed-down pilot concept requires a close communication with ATC to prevent collisions).

  • I'd been following their website for the last few years and really thought they were going to do it. It looked so cool and seemed like a great commuter vehicle.
    • I hope that's sarcasm. No "Great Comuter Vehicle" has ever had giant rotating blades in arms reach.
      • Re:Damn! (Score:3, Insightful)

        by telstar ( 236404 )
        Apparently you've never flown a twin-prop puddle-jumper. Sure there's a window between you and the propeller ... but should one of those things unleash ... 10mm of plastic isn't going to do much for you.

        On the other hand ... I agree that this thing would be deadly if it had ever gone into mass production.
        • Re:Damn! (Score:3, Funny)

          by geekoid ( 135745 )
          I choose to belive that the plastic, and thin metal frame will protect me from any danger, including a renegade prop, thank you very much.

          In case of rebuttal, I will now put my hands over my ears and loudly say "LA LA LA LA..."
  • by SSJVegeto2001 ( 630176 ) on Friday December 20, 2002 @10:48PM (#4934225)
    Why does it always seem like it's the most worthwhile projects that are forced to come to an end by lack of funding? Who decides that these endeavors aren't important enough? Humanity in general is held back by large corporations that edge out the smaller and perhaps more innovative smaller companies (after all, you have to start somewhere, so new ideas are destined to start small). Sure would have been nice to have one of those...
    • And furthermore... If DARPA had interest in this project before, how is cutting funding going to help? What, if they can't have it working the way they want it by December 20th, they don't want it at all? It's not like they have a bunch of different competing designs for a troop transport aircraft such as this one; by cutting funding for this aren't they damning themselves to never having a vehicle of this type, or is it not as practical as it seems?
      • The problem is that the public and especially Congress want Results (TM), not "the future".

        Look at the rototating engine "Osprey". The program has been "just around the corner" for decades. Dick Cheney wanted to kill the program back when he was in Congress.

        The question becomes: how much do we dump into the project to recoup previous costs, and to move to the future?

        If you keep dumping money into a project there is absolutely no guarantee that it will get done. And you can be sure that these little programs come up when 20/20 or 60 Minutes does a report on "government waste". I can imagine what they'd say "..and how about this pork project - $40 million was spent on desinging a Jetson's like jet pack for the military - and it didn't even work!". The article/show gets more imflammatory the larger the number. God help us if it gets over $1B.

        So yeah, they are daming themselves, but the thing is that DARPA will spend money on something less risky, more likely to succeed. Basically its "baby steps", and that's what Congress people like to see - incremental steps that they can bring home and campaign on.

        Finally, I should say, I am notopposed to restrictions on time/funding for research projects. They have to conform to some standards. If you can't meet them, okay, no foul - just no funding. I'd rather see them spend money on non-military items from time to time.
      • What makes you assume that they don't have a bunch of different competing designs? That's only as far as you know. This might be the only one that isn't classified.
    • Who decides? Economics. "Cool Shit" rarely pays for itself. Flying cars are not practical to be frank. They cost an enormous amount of money just to develop, and what they'll end up being is an extremely expensive toy with no practical or durable use. Cars are cheap because the parts are mass manufactured and they're simple. You can't take the complexity of a Harrier Jump Jet and market it as a car AND not expect all kinds of horrible crap to happen (air to air collisions, contact with power lines, etc). The FAA has butt-loads of restrictions on aircraft for a reason: they're dangerous if not used properly. You bust a head gasket driving around in your car and you'll still putter to a garage for help. You bust something vital on an aircraft at 10,000ft and you're screwed. Try to imagine mass amounts of people using these in a dense suburban area.... just getting the damn thing in your driveway would be hard enough.... imagine if there were high winds. Computers can compensate for a lot, but there's a reason why we don't have automated cars, let alone automated flying cars.
      • Actually, it can be easier than you think. Automation is the key to safety an example, automation nowadays has made the pilot redundant. Let me say that again: the pilot is not neccessary anymore! There are landing programs (ILS etc), takeoff porgrams and autopilots which take care of everything during the flight. In practice this means that right now the way things work is that the pilot is only doing something during take off and landing! And he's not even needed there!
        I'll go one further and state the fact that many more crashes are the fault of pilot error rather than hard- or software error; the pilot is actually making flying unsafer!

        Thing is, pilots themselves don't trust a computer to fly an airplane. Of course not: they'd be out of job. What's also said is taht the general public wouldn't trust a computer. As for the informed general public (I count myself here)...well, knowing what I know, I would have no problem with it...I'd actually feel safer knowing there wasn't some failed military wannabe in the cockpit. As for the uninformed general public? I dunno, but I think they'd accept anything in exchange for the cheaper flights it will bring when you don't have to employ pilots anymore.

        Oh, as for cars: there are a number of projects which automate car travel...have you never seen those cars riding 'in convoy'? They travel automated, super close to each other. When one's engine breaks down, it gets chucked out of the line (safely) and the rest chug on. It looks really cool, and is probably what inspired the car system in Minority Report.
        • Easier than you think, my ass!

          I work in chemical plant and refinery automation, and guess what? We like to keep a few people around even in the most automated of facilities. Why? Because every now and then something comes up that the program can't handle, or some device sending data to the computer is inconsistent or at fault. Running smoothly 99.99% of the time just isn't good enough. As long as significant risks and liability are involved, you will see humans running the show, even if those humans are watching the computers do most of the work.
          • The difference here is scope of catastrophy: if something goes wrong in the refinery (or a chemical plant, or a nuclear reactor), the surrounding countryside becomes/can become uninhabitable and a huge number of people can be affected.

            With just a couple of hundred people (in the case of 747/777/etc), but especially in the case of personal transport, like cars or personal aircraft, user error causes MUCH more fatalities than computer errors will. It's just numbers: less will die if automation is put into place in cars and aircraft.
            Shit, it's already !fully! in place in aircraft: the autopilot can handle takeoff, flight and landing. These systems are on planes NOW!

            Why is there still a pilot? To handle things when stuff goes wrong. But the simple fact of the matter is that the pilot screws up more often than the computer; most crashes in the last years have been due to pilot error. These could have been avoided by relying on the computer. I don't really know how else I can put this: we have the systems in place, but we don't use them because we don't trust them...but there would have been less dead if we had. 5 9's for a computer system is still a hell of a lot better than a human.

            It's just that people like to blame people, not computers. Really stupid, but there you are.
        • Airports are big and clear of debris and obstacles. Try automating something that lands in your driveway (or someone elses driveway) and avoids tree branches, thin wires, small pets, etc.
        • Actually, it can be easier than you think. Automation is the key to safety here...

          Automating safety requires a "human" to consider every possible thing that could go wrong and develop a software and mechanical solution for. Nobody is that good. N-o-b-o-d-y.

          Automated saftey also requires that every sensor on a device, be it a plane or a car, is working 100% all of the time. A computer simply cannot look at a stuck altimeter and feel that the plane is nose diving.

          Heck, even though we've had automatic transmissions in cars for decades there is still the means to override this to go into a lower gear. Decades of technology fed into these cars still can't determine as well as a human what kind of slope or speed is optimal for the conditions the car is driving in. Sure, 90% of the time the automatic gear selection works fine. 10% of the time it can't.

          You can utilize automation to assist in safety. For example, in a military fighter jet the computer will prevent the pilot from ripping the wings off an aircraft, or turning himself into cockpit salsa. ILS assists bringing in an aircraft on the proper flight path, allowing for the pilot to focus on issues such as weather, cross winds, or even cross traffic.

          I dunno, but I think they'd accept anything in exchange for the cheaper flights it will bring when you don't have to employ pilots anymore.

          I "do" know that I would rather shell out a few extra bucks rather than entirely replace an experienced pilot at the helm of a vehicle 30,000 feet above the ground flying through a nearly infinite range of weather conditions.
    • Because not everyone shares your definition of "worthwhile".
    • Welcome to the world of REAL innovation. The reason this project "failed" was it failed to be attractive to investors. This has NOTHING to do with the technical merits and possible future market value of such an invention (and family of inventions, as the tech matures). It has EVERYTHING to do with the fact that most investors are timid. Governments included.

      Investors are so afraid of being burned by something that seems weird (ie: anything that has a remote chance of sparking a revolution in design) to take a long term risk on a great project. This happens with dumb and smart projects alike, without discrimination. And the ones that get funding are as likely to be losers as not.

      The gatekeepers of capitol are painfully myopic when it comes to sponsoring cheap, smaller projects with lots of potential. There is more gravy in the big projects where everyone gets to fly around for a lot of meetings and stuff. Great, romantic, crazy enterprises are squashed with great vigour and relish by established interests. They are a threat to a stable mediocrity. Institutions crave control over a well-established domain, using a sort of clumsy Machiavellianism, a fumbling management of things: Reactive. Defensive. Mean.

      Advancement and paradigm-shifting requires a tiger of innovative ideas, a world-breaker: the Market houses only those who worship the image of the tiger, while playing their monkey games on high, quite happy with their habit of competing for an unbroken world.

      You know what the REAL problem these guys had? No interest from the U.S. Army. Too bad, they could have been wicked for forward observing. And I think fuel cells would have been a great "synergistic" technology. Maybe we'll see this again soon.

      Or not. Screw innovation. I want a burrito.
  • Thank god these aircrafts won't be on -or above- our roads anytime soon. It is difficult enough to drive in two dimensions. I would not want to be anywhere near such a craft when it runs out of fuel ;-)
  • dollars, nope... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    It all comes down to math and physics. Anyone who doesn't think so will get killed by those who know it.
  • Could have something to do with it: Flying car [] ..or maybe not.
  • by glrotate ( 300695 ) on Friday December 20, 2002 @10:55PM (#4934260) Homepage
    As far as being a member of the living population
  • The First:
    In December of 2000, Trek Aerospace was awarded $5,100,000 in development funding from DARPA over a thirty-six month period.

    WHAT? 5 million dollars??? People wonder why the budget of the US is in such disorray, and we're throwin 5 million dollars at a personal flight vehicle?

    The Second:
    What benefit would a personal flying machine have? Aren't something like 90% of the recorded aircraft fatalities a direct result of personally owned aircraft? Are we trying to increase the death rate?

    The Third:
    Look at the design, how the hell could you use this for defense? It looks to me like the hands would have to be constantly working on keeping the damned thing in the air, how the hell could you fire a weapon etc. with no hands?

    Basically I see this as yet another clusterfuck of American tax dollars of entirely too well funded bureaucratic departments pissing money away. When is it exactly we're going to start acting like adults and not war happy mongers?

    I commend DARPA for eliminating funding to this project, now what other bullshit programs can they cut?

    • Look at the design, how the hell could you use this for defense?

      Not a big fan of jump jets on your mecha? (kidding, kidding.. *grin* )

      It is pure research. Never a bad thing. Had this been a 'show me a profit this quarter' deal, I'm sure it never would have left the ground. DARPA is one of the few places left to foot the bill for things that may be nothing more than a stepping stone for the next big thing.

      I suspect it is a lot like flying a helecopter... it takes a long time before the machine goes where you think. A bit of PIC time and improved stability, there would be time to aim. Not sure what you would fire, but anyhow...
      • I'll take you up on that....I LOVE jumpjets....they could be the uber-weapon if used correctly.

        Yes, there isn't much protection for the operator, but imagine 75-100 of these things swarming around some "target of interest"...

        Not quite as "remote control" as the Preditor or Global Hawk...but more lethal because the guys could jump out of their suits once they arrive on the scene.

        This is something that DARPA should be funding, not John Poindexter looking at your credit card purchases!

        It's too bad too, I've seen other cool projects get killed by the Dept. of Defense too.

        I imagine that this technology will be scooped up for pennies by one of the big defense contractors. This is really too cool and too adaptable to pass up for the soldier in the field.

    • Can I see your invention?

      Oh I'm sorry you dont have one?, I mistook your ranting for 'Don't give your money to things that might work but we wont know unless they're given money'.

      Besides, how would you feel if you cut a project that was technologically advanced but your short-sightedness thought that it could never work and gave it to another country who then had a technological advantage? America is reknowned for doing such things.

    • how the hell could you use this for defense?

      Good for scouting or recon, or extremely rapid platoon movement. The Air Cavalry concept has proven effective, and this would give each soldier his or her own "horse".

      Not saying it would work out, but I can see why DARPA would be interested.

    • >What benefit would a personal flying machine have?

      Umm, ariel urban combat perhaps?

      >Are we trying to increase the death rate?

      Only of the enemy.

      >how the hell could you fire a weapon etc. with no hands?

      HUD with a weapons system control on one of the sticks. This is like asking how a pilot can use the stick and fire a weapon at the same time.

      Nitpicking aside, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with the strap-on helicopter concept, but just because SoloTrek can't do it doesn't mean its necessarily a bad idea.
    • The U.S. government has a yearly budget of one trillion dollars, and over forty percent of that goes to the millitary.
      At least this could've been used by citizens.
      • also note that One Trillion = 1000 Billion. 1 Billion = 1000 million. So One Trillion looks like: 1,000,000,000,000.00.


        1,000,000,000,000.00 / 5,000,000 = 1/50,000TH of ONE PERCENT.

        (I think - If my math is right... late+beer doesnt help.)

        anyway - thats is NOTHING out of a trillion dollars. I dont think people actually realize how much money one trillion dollars actually is. the word trillion is more money than you could actually ever ever spend in your lifetime. 5 mil on something likethis is a good thing.

        Would you rather 5M on this - or 5M in 2 minutes of bombing in Afganistan?

        put it another way. If you made $100.00 per hour - it would take you 1,141,552.5 YEARS to make 1 Trillion Dollars.
      • It was used by the citizens.
        When the government 'wastes' money it creates jobs and wealth. The philosophy that we'd all be better off if Uncle Sam would stop taxing us is sort of foolish. Uncle sam is redistibuting the wealth one way or another, I'd rather have him funding advanced research like this than feeding Ethiopians or putting more fat lazy cops on the street. Those 5.1 million dollars were put into the hands of honest, hardworking engineers and machinists.
        I think Uncle Sam mismanages his money a lot, but there's fat that needs to get trimmed WAY before they start cutting into innovative research like this. The whole thing is sort of like the 'give a fish or teach to fish' debate; you can fork over loot to feed people who don't produce much for the whole of things, or you can invest the money into research that may or may not accomplish something AND will pay the mortgages of many people who DO produce their share of the GDP. It sounds like an asshole concept, but it actually staves off having a peasant-class population.
      • Forty percent! The Soviet Union didn't even spend that much! Try eighteen percent []. Then, note that over half the federal budget goes to welfare.
    • "It looks to me like the hands would have to be constantly working on keeping the damned thing in the air, how the hell could you fire a weapon etc. with no hands?"

      Last I looked, most popular fighter jets took both hands to fly as well.


    • Troll of the Week (Score:2, Insightful)

      by disc-chord ( 232893 )
      I'm confussed, are you anti-american or anti-american tax money going to research?

      This reads like one of the many trolls here, and I'll hand it to ya, it's so well written even I'm responding. Let me go through point by point, this I'm sure we'll both enjoy.

      1) $5,100,000 is chump change for R&D. When you get out into the real world you will be amazed how much money is getting thrown around to study the amount of time it takes for Ketchup to be poured out of a bottle. (I'm not making this up, there really was a federal grant provided to a research project like this.)

      2) This is just insane. If you hate americans, why don't you want us killing ourselves with our personal aircrafts? You know I bet the % of american auto acidents in personal vechicles vs commercial/public transportation is about 90% to. Doesn't mean we're not going to drive to work tommarow. You give us personal helicopters and we'll be flying them drunk, I assure you. We got places to go people to see and your % doesn't mean a good goddamn to the impressive profit you'd see selling a personal aircraft like this.
      But wait, I know... that's just the evil american capitalist in me. Argh I am such a friggen infadel! Would someone blow me up already?

      3) This is also insane, wtf was I thinking when I called this well written. Nevermind, I must have been looking at something else entirely. This 3rd argument makes it pretty obvious you didn't even read the story and are making shit up as you go.

      Pick your favorite, Steven King/Hawking Dead at 55, or the ever present "Fucking Americans all you care about is __________ when there are people starving in the world!". Personally I like the trolls that argue over which one Steven should be trolled about being dead.(common trolls where's your solidarity?)

    • If you're interested in other programs that the government is funding, check out this [] and that []. You might get funding for your very own bullshit idea!
    • In December of 2000, Trek Aerospace was awarded $5,100,000 in development funding from DARPA over a thirty-six month period.

      I don't know about the USA but when I applied for a $30K R&D grant here in New Zealand, it cost me about $35K in time and effort just to file all the paperwork!

      Suffice to say I haven't bothered applying for another (even thought the first application was successful).

      Such grants appear to only be practical when you're a big enough organization that you can have staff dedicated to the full-time processing of all the forms, requests, reports and other bits of bureacracy that are required to meet all the criteria.

      But hey, some nice person I've never heard of before sent me an email the other day telling me that I qualify for a government grant. I think their name was Ima Spamma or something ;-0

    • "Aren't something like 90% of the recorded aircraft fatalities a direct result of personally owned aircraft? " No.

      "What benefit would a personal flying machine have?" I would have been far more difficult to get a liscence for this then a car. People would actually have to understand it, and prove they can opperate it in all contingencies before allowed to pilot one.

      First off 5,000,000 isn't really that much for an R&D effort, espcially one that could of had this kind of payoff.

      Second, this has a huge possible military benefit.
      No not in combat, I mean logistic wise.

      third, spin off from this could, in and of itself, had have a ice return(R&D wise).

      Forth, it would have cost DARPA more to check out this possibility themselves, so it SAVED them money

      Fifth, the govenment penny watchers are for more criticle about money, and understand the money side of risk analysis better then you ever will.

      Sixth, The civillian use of this in a time of disaster would save many lives.

      " Basically I see this as yet another clusterfuck of American tax dollars of entirely too well funded bureaucratic departments pissing money away."

      I am sure many people would have said the same thing about the internet when it was being funded by the government.
  • by grub ( 11606 )

    The Flying Cars that we were all supposed own are nearly 3 years late and this is the best they can come up with?

    Man oh man..
    • Re:Crap. (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Arker ( 91948 )

      Yeah, solotrek was pretty crappy.

      However the flying cars [] are coming along nicely, thanks. You should be able to buy one in about 4 years. That is if you aren't connected to the military or something so you don't have to worry about FAA paperwork - in that case possibly only a few months.

  • by UniverseIsADoughnut ( 170909 ) on Friday December 20, 2002 @11:35PM (#4934293)
    A loud sad sound was heard coming from the Darwin Awards website.
  • subject (Score:3, Funny)

    by hdparm ( 575302 ) on Friday December 20, 2002 @11:47PM (#4934332) Homepage
    At first glance, I saw it read The End of Star Trek.

    Unfortunately, it was just at first glance.

  • I don't see how personal flight vehicles for the masses could ever come to fruition. It's been a struggle to reduce highway fatalities due to people losing control over a vehicle capable of moving over an essentially planar surface. Now, how about the problems associated with the ability to travel in the third dimension. Running out of fuel while in midair - you splat down hard, instead of coasting to stop. Collisions with trees, buildings, fogbanks, aircraft, including fellow SoloTrekkers, etc. Imagine the possibilities opening up for ordinary criminals and terrorists. If the ultimate goal is the rapid conveyance of people intra and inter city, we need to: 1. Use massive tax incentives to encourage working from home. Jet Blue, for instance, largely does away with call centers by having its reservation agents receive the calls at home. 2. Construct efficient new light rail systems. 3. Encourage a new generation of small ultraefficient jet aircraft to ferry small loads of passengers on the less popular routes. There has been an upsurge in fractional jet ownership programs, with ensuing competition driving down prices. Big airlines and big planes are showing their age. It's time for new thinking in the post-jet age.
    • No...all we need is to automate it; take control out of peoples hands. It's a tested and proven concept. And the amount of people getting killed because of computer crashes will be a number of factors smaller than the amount getting killed now.
  • by Sean Clifford ( 322444 ) on Friday December 20, 2002 @11:54PM (#4934351) Journal
    Sigh...okay already, I'll fund it. Sheesh.

    I'll just get a loan against my .com stock and...

  • Moller International [] is still developing it's Skycar. We'll have our flying cars yet!
  • by DoraLives ( 622001 ) on Friday December 20, 2002 @11:58PM (#4934368)
    These things wouldn't even work if they were all controlled by some kind of ubercomputer to keep them in line, nevermind if they were just go-n-fly's completely at the whim of the operator.

    A list, if you will, of things I never wan't to see coming my way, especially from above, and a few other things I don't want to see, either.

    1. Idiot hot rodders whamming around over your head and between the trees.

    2. Slashdotters who had cracked the codes on the ubercomputer, going seriously against the grain.

    3. Low maintainence goobers who won't keep their rig in proper flying order.

    4. Bank robbers (or worse), fleeing the scene of the crime, guns blazing.

    5. People who drop things.

    6. Horny losers, staring at some girl's butt, from just below treetop level.

    7. Idiots on the ground with guns pointed at the sky and a psychotic grin on their face.

    8. The bad eyesight brigade, especially when near overhead powerlines.

    9. People who forget to check the gas gauge before driving down to the store.

    10. Folks altered chemically, including the chemical alcohol.

    11. Heart attack victims.

    12. People who all of a sudden regurgitate dinner, or perhaps didn't wear their depends.

    13. Suicidal types (including the overly religious ones).

    Thirteen's enough, yes?
  • Did anyone else see the title and think of an exercise machine? It struck me as strange that I'd be seeing health & fitness articles on /.
  • would it really be all that useful? Don't get me wrong, it's veyr cool. I just can't see what good this thing would have been. It has about as much potential as those jet packs from the 70's and 80's, which isn't much.

    Would I want to fly in one? Sure, who wouldn't. Frankly, I think DARPA's money could be going to more useful things, though. Sorry if that bothers anyone.
    • I think the problem here is that not everyone understands that DARPA's remit allows it to fund some of the more risky projects with the hope that maybe a handful will be promising. From the DARPA website []:

      The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). It manages and directs selected basic and applied research and development projects for DoD, and pursues research and technology where risk and payoff are both very high and where success may provide dramatic advances for traditional military roles and missions.

      In principle, one could imagine that it would be advantageous for troops to move through the air individually. The way one does that is quite unclear and non-trivial. So, it's expected that these projects will fail and that does not necessarily mean it wasn't "useful". I'm amazed that this company did as much as it did with $5 million. It's not the same as when the government goes to a bunch of defense contractors and says, "Give me better guidance for my smart bombs" and then expects to have better smart bombs at the end of the day.

  • by cryptochrome ( 303529 ) on Saturday December 21, 2002 @12:04AM (#4934399) Journal
    They're just trying to cover up the fact that they've been bought out by COBRA, a ruthless international terrorist organization determined to rule the world!

    Want proof? Here it is! [] They've got blueprints and everything.
  • ... couple this with powered exoskeleton body armor with a micro fission power source..

  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Saturday December 21, 2002 @12:16AM (#4934447) Journal

    Congratulations Mr. Marthouse, You've Invented The Train.

    OK, time to share a personal experience. This happened my last year at UVa. Every engineering student was required to do a 4th year thesis, something that was held out as a matter of pride in the rigor of the engineering program. Mine was some software that tracked the edge of the roadway using splines. The justficication for it was that one day we'd have real-time MI that could drive cars, and that the technique might be a useful component of that.

    Another student was designing a "volkscopter" personal flight vehicle.

    Well, we all had to give presentations (including a Q & A) during the development phase, and I made the Trent Lott-like blunder of bringing up the fact that such things were routinely advertised in Popular Mechanics when I posed a question.

    We were all so busy, I never got around to settling this issue with people. I just got some hardball questions during my Q & A from students sympathetic to the other guy, which I was able to dodge. The thesis project taught me as much about politics as it did about engineering!

    To the student who was designing the volkscopter, I apologize. There was no need to drag you into what I was discovering.

    First, I realized that asking an entire class of engineering students to do an "original" research project is just ridiculous. Truly original ideas are like winning lotto tickets.

    Second, the whole idea of self-driving cars is just ridiculous. Why not just put us all back on trains? Well, we subsidize roads way too much. We're plunking $1 billion into the Springfield Interchange near where I live, and although I must say it has added some aesthetic flair to Springfield, it won't solve gridlock. Contrast this with how much money Amtrack needs to stay afloat. I don't think Amtrack was even asking for $1 billion, wasn't it $900 million? Regardless, the point is that if we subsidized rail at the same rate per passenger and freight mile that we do highways, things would, in my opinion, be a lot better.

    So, at some point it dawned on me that my thesis was really just inventing the train. I thought to myself, Congratulations Mr. Marthouse, you've invented the train. Of course I never disclosed this to my profs. I wanted to graduate. My only form of protest was to refuse to change the title of my thesis to "An application of rational uniform bezier splines for edge detection in an automated navigation system" from "Snakes: an improved method for highway line following". I swear I'm not making this up. The prof was really disappointed I wouldn't give it an important sounding title.

    What does this have to do with personal flight? Well, it's only safe if you build a train-like system where the vehicle "locks on" to a program and the user doesn't actually have to pilot the vehicle.

    People will not accept this in a personal flight system until they accept it in a ground transportation system. If you try to do it in a ground system, they will ask themselves the same question I asked: why not just use trains.

    The answer, like many things, has more to do with politics than engineering.

    --Steven Marthouse, UVa ENGR '93.

    p.s., the story of my "greening" after graduation has some interesting turns, but you'll have to buy my book. :)

    • I dis-agree.

      A train has set stops, set routes and set times. All this makes it very akward to use. As a train commuter in a previous life I hate the bloddy things.

      Now automate the car so they can drive closer, faster and safer. All the problems of that train are eliminated.

      The US would love automated cars. It's shiny, modern, safe, convienient. I can see the info commercials now.
      • I caught a train in to work on a regular basis for over a year. I arrived at the station, boarded the train, and paid the conductor when he came to issue my ticket.

        What part of that scenario was inconvenient? I required no insurance, had no vehicle maintenance costs, no car payment, no fuel costs, never had to look for a parking place (I lived a 10 minute walk from the station), and I got to read the newspaper over a cup of tea and a biscuit during the trip. I could even nap on my way to work, if I desired (and sometimes did).

        I love commuting by train. I don't need to commute at all now (I live a 15 minute walk from work), but I would certainly take the train for trips into the next town if it were available, and said town is only eight miles away. I hate the inconvenience of a car, a sinkhole for money, on wheels.

        But I guess we all have our own definitions of convenience, right?

        Okay, when it's raining and cold, and I want to rent a video at 10:30pm because I can't sleep, a car is fantastic. I'll acknowledge they do have their uses. I don't have a washer or dryer, and I take the car to the laundromat. Grocery shopping is easier with a car. But those are all near-destinations; for commuting, which by defintion means that your destination is not local, a train is ideal. Different tools for different uses.

        How I long for the convenience of train service when I need to drive the 350+ miles to Seattle...

        • I take the train frequently here in Tokyo. They take a long time to get anywhere, the stations are huge and take a long time to walk across to your next train, navigating the hugely complex system of intersecting train lines is confusing, they stop running at midnight, you have to stand for long periods of time, you can't transport anything that you can't fit into a small bag (such as a bicycle), and they're expensive. They sure are punctual, though.

          But I guess we all have our own definitions of convenience, right? I think you're probably more in love with the idea of having trains, than the daily reality of having to get on the damn train again just to go to the bookstore.

    • "The answer, like many things, has more to do with politics than engineering."

      you get the train to stop in front of my house and pick me up, and then drop me off in front of my work, I'll take it. That, is an engineering issue.

      People fly planes without "locking on" all the time. Of course it is more risky, so you have to actualy:
      a) be well trained
      b) fully understand the vehical
      c)spend lots off money being trained.

      Those write there would decrease the amount of possible flyers.

      Seld driving vehicals are possible now, in fact a certian truck building company has one that works perfectly in all tests, including hazards.
      This issue is emotional for most people, and political for truck driving unions.
      • "you get the train to stop in front of my house and pick me up, and then drop me off in front of my work, I'll take it. That, is an engineering issue."

        That's not happening, and that's not happening because money was spent on a road, rather than a rail track, in front of your house. But the reason money was spent on a road, rather than a rail track, in front of your house, *IS* political, and has everything to do with the history of railroads in this country (and most other countries too), where the railroads were built by big corporations or by government in order to serve big corporations or government. The highway system, on the other hand, originally arose in the dirt tracks that people made as they followed each other in ox-pulled wagons across the country during the great migrations that populated everything west of the Atlantic Ocean. I.e., it originated in the PEOPLE. When the automobile came along, politics forced those tracks to be paved, but it was not until after WWI that government in the U.S. became involved in actually planning and designing roads and highways on a large scale, and the pattern of roads and highways = personal use, railroads = centralized corporate and government use, had already been set by that time.

        There are indeed engineering problems inherent in personal rail transportation. The inability to "jump the tracks" (for, e.g., temporary overflow parkings in a cow pasture outside of big events) is one of the bigger ones, as is the scheduling problem (making sure that you don't have two rail cars going at each other on the same track, or intersecting at a street corner!). But the fact that personal use of the rail network is impossible at all is a political problem, not an engineering problem, a political problem bound inherently in the mentality of the people who own and operate railroads and in the mentality of the government bodies that oversee railroads, a political problem that has been true for over 150 years here in the United States and will continue to be true for the foreseeable future because of the vast investment sunk into highways for personal use.

    • Hm, so relinquishing control of direction of the vehicle of transportation is the only safe option.

      You might be right, I'm not qualified to judge there one way or another, but driving cars seems (statistically) to be safe enough for most purposes these days. Yes, having to drive on roads is a step in the direction of having predetermined flight paths, but you can still go to the office the short way or the long way.

      I come from Egypt, and trains here are so darn unsafe it's almost safer to strap yourself to a 747's left wing and hope for the best. Even cars are safer.

      When taking all factors into consideration, I think only statistics can tell you what is safer; the guided train or the wild automobile ride.
    • What does this have to do with personal flight? Well, it's only safe if you build a train-like system where the vehicle "locks on" to a program and the user doesn't actually have to pilot the vehicle. People will not accept this in a personal flight system until they accept it in a ground transportation system.

      Most people have driving licenses but they don't have pilot's licenses. This is a simple barrier to acquiring the right to fly and allows a class of license to be created for those who only will fly in a ground supervised flight mode on an appropriately equipped aircraft.

      As regards your sentiments, the train falls down once you arrive at the station. Is the public transport system infrastructure then good enough to get you to within a few hundred metres of your home? I live in Germany and even there, it can be a problem if you live outside a well connected town so people continue to use cars. As people currently have the right to drive where and how they want, rhey won't want to give up this right to join a 'road train', even though it would be safer on motorways.

      An added issue is that in Germany, the autobahn remains one of the few places that are comparitively unregulated. The motor industry and the public would fight any attempt to force poeple into road trains. Even though Germany has one of the best public transport systems in the world. many still don't want to use it.

    • We're plunking $1 billion into the Springfield Interchange near where I live

      Clearly what you need is a monorail [].
    • Interesting.

      I quite like public transportation too; the daily commute to town on the double-decker trains here is a joy - affordable, cozy and spacious, safe to snooze thru and if you like, you can surf the web from your laptop (power plug provided underneath the cafe-style small tables between the seat groups).

      Rural residents obviously don't have [easy] access to such, and for this reason a personal motor vehicle is required to get anywhere. Some people equate this with freedom and I can certainly see that POV.

      However, car ownership and operation is freedom under responsibility, and the congestion and frequent crashes and accidents clotting up the super expensive highway systems and interchanges, are all imo pretty good indicators that human beings on the whole are imperfect motorists.

      Environmental factors aside, I think we'll be stuck with the personal motor vehicle for a while yet. At some point cars will be entirely computerized 'drive-by-wire' systems with servos making the turns of the car telegraphed by the steering wheel which would be nothing more than a sophisticated version of the wheels you use for toy console racing games, no mechanical linking anymore. There may be safety hazards, but they can no doubt be overcome with redundancy planning.

      When / if we ever get to this point, a new application will come up - special high speed lanes reserved for vehicles using this technology. The lanes will have magnets embedded in the road to help guide the automatic driving systems in the cars, so drivers only have to get into this lane and let go of the wheel and put it in automatic coast mode.

      Then the computer in the car will drive the car along this virtual track and select a speed which will allow traffic in this lane to run smoothly and compress as many cars as are safe to operate, in the lane, by letting them run nearly bumper to bumper.

      This could be safe, because the cars in the lane would all be computer controlled, and a 'column' of cars in these 90mph bumper-to-bumper convoys would have their acceleration and braking linked so that if any one vehicle is braking, all other vehicles behind it begins to brake in the same split second, with the same force.

      When you wanna break out of this column, you just press a 'breakout button' and vehicles in front and behind will push away to allow you to merge out. With regular intervals there will be breakout lanes, also with magnets, which the car will come to automatically, and here the driver will be required to grab controls and merge into ordinary traffic, which may all one day be flowing according to computerized control for greatest possible safety.

      One imagines the steering wheel could be entirely obsolete in time, replaced with pushbuttons to merge left or right. In-vehicle computers would negotiate merge slots and you'd get in lane when safe to do so. Traffic flow would be much more efficient than today.

      Perhaps you select at tbe beginning of your trip where you're going, and computers will schedule slots in the traffic streams, and your entire cruise from end to end will be factored into the overall traffic flow before you even get on the road. You'd know to the second exactly when you'd arrive. Unmanned delivery vehicles and supersized 'freight trains' on the road could safely ride side by side with ordinary passenger vehicles.

      Imagine that emergency vehicles could push through traffic automatically pushing away to make room, like waters parting from a speeding boat.

      (We pray that Microsoft will be providing neither the software to run the autonomous, in-vehicle computers, nor the traffic management systems organizing the traffic patterns. )

    • In my experience, the problem with sufficiently long commutes (we're talking DART [] here) is that slight asyncs with the system added up to huge penalties. What I mean by this is that to reach my job I had to follow this route:

      1. Drive to train station
      2. Take train to another station 3. (FIRST PENALTY) Wait for next train...10 minutes 4. Take train to next station 5. (SECOND PENALTY) Wait for bus...12 minutes 6. Take bus to transit center 7. (THIRD PENALTY) Wait for last bus...17 minutes
      Total penalties: 39 minutes. Add to this the drawback of having to be very specific about what time I arrive and leave, not being able to drive anywhere for lunch, having a very hard limit on how late I can simply wasn't possible.

      Thinking like a good economist, I thought that commuting makes a lot more sense for people for whose time is less valuable, i.e., if I work at a 7-11, and public transportation saves me from having to own a car, then it's a much better deal.

      Anyhow, you missed the point of your own project. It seems to me that the main application would be for shipping rather than personal transport. Items are shipped in trucks rather than trains for the same reasons (asynchronicity, necessity of trucking at least a portion of the route). Trucking routes have almost exactly the needs you describe.
  • by dloyer ( 547728 ) on Saturday December 21, 2002 @12:19AM (#4934464)
    New planes built today have not changed much in 50 years. It takes a long time to learn how to fly a plane today. If flight systems where designed from scratch today using the same usibility techniques that are used to design consumer products, flying would be much more accessable to many more people than today.

    I am a student pilot and I know the time and commitment that it takes to learn how to fly.

    The "powered lift" products like this and the mollar sky car use computer control to vastly simplify flying. Controls dont really need to be much more complex than "go up, go down, turn left, turn right" if the computer controls the power as well as control surfaces.

    Today small aircrafts are just now starting to adopt "FADEC" to reduce three knobs on the dashboard just to control power, to only one. Big deal. FADEC systems are similar to the engine computer that your 10 year old car has.

    Due to the threat of product liability lawsuits, it is very hard to get investment dollars for any type of new aircraft or flight critical system, let alone something as radical as this.

    In Aviation, change happens slowly, oh so slowly. Personal VTOL will happen, but maybe not during my lifetime.

  • by nounderscores ( 246517 ) on Saturday December 21, 2002 @12:34AM (#4934528)
    The development of the tank [] was plagued with setbacks and the original inventors were brushed off by the american war office, only to be adopted by the brits.

    Even then, the program really didn't get started until after a lot of patriotic young men were were killed on the fields of the first world war.

    If we believe the website (especially the third link in the slashdot article) then the solotrek flew, there are two prototypes capable of controlled hover (one of which is slightly damaged in a test flight accident due to a problem with the test rig and not the vehicle) and all of it is available for cash.

    If there is a real need for a single occupant exosuit flyer (for instance, making insertions into urban areas and avoiding the whole black hawk down [] kinda scenario []) then somebody will fund it.

    Whether its the EU, some asian power who has engineers who work for nothing or Somebody Else.

    If the next developer waits until after the solotrek team scatters, then the resulting machine will not be a solotrek. But then again a Panzer is not the tank envisiged by the engineers at the Holt Company USA either.
    • Hey, the British didn't do such a good job with the tank, either. It was the Germans who really went gangbusters with the concept. The American tanks were really lackluster, despite what the public believes.

      To everyone I recommend a copy of Achtung-Panzer! [] It's a really clear and concise book that shows not only exactly why the tank was a good idea, but how to properly implement the concept to achieve the ultimate goal of a quick, decisive war.

  • "it'll never work!" Rocky []
    • You're right. Both the Solo Trek and that Moller thingy are purely vectored-thrust, powered-lift aircraft designs. These kinds of things are the most unstable, fault-UNtolerant flying contraptions you could possibly conjure up. Hell, even a rocket is safer. This kind of aircraft is a fatal accident -guaranteed- just waiting to happen. They are very difficult to control and the total number of combinations and permutations of all possible operating parameters and various failure modes of all the components that keep such a craft in the sky would need a redundant beowulf cluster of redundant beowulf clusters to keep all the computations updated to stay on top of things in all circumstances the craft could possibly encounter in "flight"(sic). Don't even mention a BRS parachute to bail you out of trouble in one of these craft.... because when you blow the 'chute, you are no longer in control, you are just a passenger along for whatever ride you get... maybe into high-voltage power lines to get fried to an extra crispy crisp. And no, I'm not anti-personal-aviation at fact I'm a pilot myself and I own a single engine small airplane that I fly all the time just for the fun of it. Give me a flying machine with a wing I can glide and stay in control of... or at the very least a rotorcraft that will give you at least one slim chance of autorotation to a controllable crashlanding.
  • by NewtonsLaw ( 409638 ) on Saturday December 21, 2002 @12:50AM (#4934601)
    The Solotrek was at best, an ill-conceived concept with many drawbacks and a long list of flaws that doomed it from the start.

    Firstly, it offered few real benefits over earlier options such as the Hiller flying platform.

    Most of us will have seen archive footage of these platforms that were so stable that a regular foot-soldier (or man in the street) could learn to fly one in just a few short minutes.

    Hiller poured a lot of money into these devices in the 1950s but ultimately they were deemed to be impractical for numerous reasons -- most of which are shared by the SoloTrek.

    Actually, the Hiller might even have been superior in a number of areas -- such as being far simpler in design and construction. Remember -- when you double the complexity of something you reduce its reliabilty by more than an equivalent amount. When my life is dependent on a piece of technology, I want that technology to be as simple and reliable as possible!

    I plan to build my own flying platform [] when time/funds allow but have no illusions that it will be anything other than a curiosity. There are certainly no plans to turn it into the personal transporter of the 21st century.

    Moller's Sky Car falls into the same category as the SoloTrek -- it's an overly complicated, hideously expensive and completely impractical device.

    That the SoloTrek and Moller Skycar managed to get any external funding amazes me.

    And, if you're interested in personal VTOL transport then check out this ambitious amateur jet-pack [] project which may be very ambitious, but is also astonishingly impressive in its engineering.
    • (hmmm, flambait...)

      Hiller had one killer problem... flight duration (90 SECONDS).

      SoloTrek was claiming 1.5-2hr flight durations. which would have made their system viable for all sorts of odd things from military to power line inspection and repair. Oh and their fuel wasn't ultra vile like Hiller's was.

      Try building one of these things, then bitch... the control theory alone is a major problem.

      -- Multics

      • Let me just say that I don't really know about either the Hiller machine or the Solotrek machine. However, saying a car gets 20 MPG city and 25 MPG highway is one thing. Saying your flying machine gets 1.5 or 2 hours in the air seems a bit, uh, imprecise to me. I saw the Faces of Death video where the guy parachuted into the alligator pit ;)
    • Hey,

      Remember -- when you double the complexity of something you reduce its reliabilty by more than an equivalent amount.

      Modern jumbo jets are much, much more complicated than the Wright Brothers' first plane, but arguably much safer and more reliable.

      Just my $0.02,

  • Another Star Trek series nipped in the bud.
  • is tens of thousands of flying anything buzzing over my backyard everyday and occasionally crashing into it. Please keep the commute traffic on the highways.

    If personal aircraft ever become economically viable, you can bet that they will be even more strongly regulated than current aircraft.

  • it seems to me that this would be a company that larry Ellison would love...

    He already has a Harrier... why not fund this wearable version....

    Crap - he could even devote resources (like coders) to a project like this.
  • Please ignore.

    --sex []

Thufir's a Harkonnen now.