NASA to build pod-like, high-speed everyday transport system

Futuristic commuter systems thanks to NASA robotics

It looks a little like the Jetson's flying car but it travels on magnetically levitated highways. That's one vision of a future commuter system that could be developed by a marriage of NASA robot-control software and car-like pods from Unimodal Systems.

Specifically, per an agreement announced today between Unimodal and NASA, Unimodal will contribute its SkyTran vehicle and its advanced transportation technology while NASA will provide its Plan Execution Interchange Language (PLEXIL) and Universal Executive (UE) robot control software to control the vehicle.

SkyTran will use small vehicles running on elevated, magnetically levitated (maglev) guideways, which distinguishes it from other railed systems. The vehicles are lightweight, personal compartments that can transport up to three passengers, according to Unimodal. Travelers board the pod-like vehicles and type their destinations into a small computer. Using intelligent control system software, SkyTran will run non-stop point-to-point service without interrupting the flow of traffic, the company said.

These vehicles will eventually travel up to 150 mph and move 14,000 people per hour, both locally and regionally. SkyTran will serve as a feeder system to other transit systems, NASA stated.

"SkyTrans personal rapid transit has generated serious interest with local, regional and state transportation leaders who are considering funding the building of the Unimodal maglev PRT system in the NASA Research Park, said Michael Marlaire, director of NASA Research Park at Ames. "This construction and new R&D partnership may usher a new green technology maglev PRT system into Silicon Valley."

From the marriage, NASA should receive feedback on its software usefulness in ground-based propulsion systems, while Unimodal will develop a transportation system designed to eliminate traffic congestion, mitigate greenhouse gases and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

A couple years ago Moller International, said it was developing a flying car, a "Jetsons-like M200G Volantor, a small airborne, two passenger, saucer-shaped vehicle that is designed to take off and land vertically." The company is developing the engine and other components of the craft, according to its Web site.

DARPA too is looking to develop what it called a personal air vehicle that could transport 2 to 4 personnel either by driving on roads or flying. The agency said such a craft would be ideal for military scouting and personnel transport missions.

To add a little more pizzazz to the project, DARPA said the machine should also have a vertical take-off capability and that it would need a "morphing wing" that could rapidly retract or deploy. The main idea being that the machine wouldn't be restricted to prepared surfaces for the most military utility.

DARPA went on to say the personal air vehicle needs to be able to fly for 2 hours, carry 2 to 4 , be no wider than 8.5 feet and no longer than 24 feet, and no higher than 7 feet when in the road configuration and drive at up to 60 MPH or fly at up to 150 MPH.

Meanwhile Woburn, Mass.-based Terrafugia, reported last spring that its Transition roadable aircraft completed its first flight. The flight was confined to the expanse of the runway, which let the company to test its stability and controllability.

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Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney

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