10 May 2008

Drivable Airplane: Carl Dietrich's Terrafugia

Carl Dietrich's company Terrafugia has come a long way since the last time Al Fin took a look at the "flying car" project.
Between now and late July, the 10 employees of angel-funded startup Terrafugia will be spending “a lot of long days, nights, and weekends” in that shop, says CEO and founder Carl Dietrich. That’s because they want to show off their concept vehicle at AirVenture—the world’s largest aviation festival, held annually in Oshkosh, WI—and there’s a lot of work to finish first.

...And the work won’t end after Oshkosh. Terrafugia wants to deliver the first Transition to a customer by the end of 2009 and go into large-scale production by 2012. If you were just building a new type of plane or a new type of car, that schedule would be ambitious enough. But the Transition is both—and if, as the company intends, pilots are to land the vehicle on an airport runway, fold up the wings, and tool right out onto public highways, then this hybrid-of-a-different-color will have to meet federal standards for both aviation safety and highway safety.

...In other words, there are a thousand practical obstacles to achieving the flying-car dreams Deitrich says he’s had since he decided to become an aerospace engineer at the age of 8—-to say nothing of actually making a bit of money along the way. “The old joke is that the best way to make a small fortune in aviation is to start with a large one,” says Dietrich. But while he admits that building a plane that you can also drive “sounds off the wall,” he says “there is a real business case for investing in its success. I’m personally invested, as are a lot of the people here. I don’t see any way we’re not going to get this done.”

Terrafugia CEO Carl DietrichThere’s plenty of reason to take Dietrich seriously. The 30-year-old earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, and was awarded the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2006 in recognition of his groundbreaking designs, including a desktop-sized fusion reactor, a pumpless rocket engine, and a blast-safe pick for removing land mines. Dietrich put the prize money into Terrafugia, which he co-founded with fellow MIT aero-astro grads Samuel Schweighart and Anna Mracek (now his wife) and two former MBA students from MIT’s Sloan School. Their plan to manufacture a road-ready airplane was the runner-up in the business venture category of the 2006 MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition—winning the company a $10,000 check that still hangs on the wall of Terrafugia’s “prototype development facility,” a modest space formerly used to manufacture garage doors. __Much more at Xconomy
Dietrich and company have chosen a very tough business--the flying airplane/drivable car combination. A lot of people have spend many decades of their lives pursuing the same quest, only to find themselves unable to deliver on the promise.

Dietrich hopes to take advantage of 2004 FAA rule changes that created a new category of small aircraft called the "special light sport aircraft (S-LSA)."
In a nutshell, if a company can manufacture a plane that weighs less than 1,320 pounds, carries no more than two people, and flies no faster than 138 miles per hour, it can get the craft qualified as an S-LSA, meaning that owners need only a sport pilot certificate to fly it. Getting a sport pilot certificate involves only about half as much flight training as qualifying for private pilot certificate, the license previously required for most general aviation flyers.

...The nifty thing about the Transition, of course, is that it’s designed to change from a plane into an automobile in about thirty seconds—meaning pilots will be able to drive right off the tarmac and onto the roadway without even having to get out. (The half-hour process of manually refitting the Aerocar for roadway driving was part of what killed Moulton Taylor’s dream, according to Dietrich.) At the flip of a switch, the Transition’s wings will fold up and the license plates will rotate into view. The vehicle’s engine, manufactured by Rotax, has a continuously variable transmission and a dual shaft that can power either the rear propeller during flight or a pair of front wheels on the road (top speed: 80 miles per hour).

...The idea of a flying car that could lift drivers out of traffic jams will probably remain a standing joke—a monument to an antique brand of technological enthusiasm. But a drivable airplane is a different proposition. And it’s probably safe to say that Terrafugia has assembled more brainpower, and more MIT degrees, around that proposition than any previous organization. “I think this is a fantastic opportunity—not just from a business perspective and a career perspective, but to work on something where we could make history,” says Dietrich. “I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”
The customers are there, the expertise in design and manufacturing are there. The investment funding is there and more is on the way. The largest barrier that Dietrich and Terrafugia face is the federal government, and its army of bureaucrats armed with truckloads of bureaucratic regulations. Only the stoutest hearts would brave such a battle.

When you look at how few there are who are willing to take up such challenges--in comparison to the many who forsake challenge in favour of security--you may begin to understand what 2 or 3 generations of dumbed down government schools and popular culture have done to the population base of North America. When you add the burden of university faculties who too often inculcate students into a brain-bound political correctness--rather than initiating them into the marvel of human initiative, drive, creation, and productivity--you understand more of the comprehensive nature of the problem. It is not just big bureaucracies, malignant litigation, and high taxes that drag North American initiative and economies down. It is the whole drone-creating system that has enmeshed entire generations.

Carl Dietrich is fortunately one of those--like Burt Rutan, Dean Kamen, Ray Kurzweil, and a few others--who is putting his own ingenuity and initiative up against the smothering effect of big bureaucracy. Good luck to Dietrich and company!

H/T Peswiki

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