As I write this, I’m reflecting on AirVenture, the annual week-long celebration of all things aviation which is held in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. For 2017, innovation was one of the main threads running through the exhibits and presentations there.
It’s exciting to see the prospect of affordable space flight tourism within a decade. To hear about the project which aims to make affordable supersonic airline travel commonplace within the next decade or two. Then there’s the future of personal travel by air. Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft – both scaled-up automobile-sized drones as well as hybrid winged designs performing somewhere between a helicopter and an airplane – are being touted as the way forward.
When companies such as Uber and Google talk about making George Jetson’s airborne car a reality, it can be enticing to imagine that they will be able to realize that vision in the near term. While the success and scope of these companies, together with the increase in pace of technological innovation, might seem to support that, the reality is that a lot of policies, procedures and regulations will have to change for that to come about.
But innovation takes many forms. To me, one of the most exciting things is when innovations in enabling technology allow a vision of something new to become reality.
That innovation may not seem as monumental as commercializing supersonic flight or space travel, but seeing the Switchblade flying car prototype on display – and realizing how close it’s getting to first flight, production and subsequent availability – leads me to reflect on what an achievement this really represents. Many people have tried over the years, but no one has succeeded before now in creating a craft which flies and drives equally well, while looking great. And, doing so in a way that will lead to successful commercialization and scale-able production without requiring any changes to existing infrastructure or regulations.
So what’s different now? What innovations, particularly over the last two decades, make the Switchblade possible?
It begins with the development of computer software used to model, analyze, test and simulate flying characteristics of aircraft designs. For the first hundred years of powered flight, aircraft design was very much a trial-and-error process. Successive approximations of designs would be tested by building scale models and observing their behavior in a wind tunnel. Calculations to determine the strength of components or predict aircraft performance had originally been done by hand, then using big, expensive computers.
But what was unavailable for most of this time, except at the tail end – and for only the largest manufacturers – was design visualization. Twenty-five years ago, Boeing’s use of CAD (Computer Aided Design) in creating the 777 airliner was revolutionary. It was twenty years ago that the first desktop PC software for aviation CAD began to appear. This was also the time when physics-based flight simulation software reached a point where it began to approximate the flight characteristics of specific aircraft designs reasonably well.
Since then, the constant improvement of personal computers – both in computing power and graphics capabilities – has allowed CAD and flight simulation software, as well as various engineering programs for modeling airflow patterns, analyzing loads and stresses on parts, etc. to grow in sophistication while becoming less expensive and more readily available. This, in turn, has created an opportunity for independent aerospace engineering firms to emerge.
This ever-faster evolution of design tools has been accompanied by the proliferation of fabrication technologies. For instance, a decade ago 3D printing was something most people hadn’t even heard of. Today, you can pick up a 3D printer at an office supply store! Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) technologies such as computer-controlled CNC milling machines, laser, water-jet or plasma cutters, etc. have become prevalent enough for a whole cottage industry to have developed around local shops offering prototyping and low-volume manufacturing services.
Meanwhile, materials technologies were improving. Composite construction of aircraft had begun in the 1970s as amateur builders adopted fiberglass techniques developed over the previous quarter century in the construction of boats. But it wasn’t until the end of the 20th century that lighter carbon fiber composites became more available and began being used in production aircraft. As sophisticated composite construction techniques were developed and more builders gained experience, this is another area where services and personnel became readily available.
Flight instruments and avionics (aviation electronics) have also benefited from innovation as sophisticated “glass panel” LCD digital instrument displays have been developed which combine aeronautical information such as altitude and airspeed with GPS maps and engine monitoring. This allows a single screen to replace an entire instrument panel full of electro-mechanical analog gauges. Meanwhile, miniaturization has condensed the typical foot-high “avionics stack” of radios, intercom and radar transponder into a footprint similar to that of a car stereo.
So, when the Samson Sky team began envisioning the Switchblade, what could they do which (if even possible) wouldn’t have been practical or economical during the first century since that flight at Kitty Hawk?
Well, they could create a design with sleek, flowing lines, which could be realized thanks to advanced composite materials and techniques. A design which can feature an enclosed ducted-fan propeller for protection on the ground – something requiring critical engineering and tight manufacturing tolerances, therefore previously found in high budget aircraft projects.
They could work out the details of this design using CAD software, calculate the necessary structures to handle the projected loads the airframe would encounter, analyze the aerodynamics of the flying surfaces and visualize airflow patterns around the aircraft. They could predict performance, configure and fly the aircraft in a flight simulator – all before beginning to build a thing. Then, they could use CNC machining to create a scale wind tunnel model – knowing that it would be 100% faithful to the design, since the entire process had been driven by the original CAD design. Analysis of the wind tunnel testing again benefited from the availability of sophisticated software, allowing the necessary refinement of the design to be tested with only one more round in the wind tunnel.
And, of course, the molds used to create the composite parts for the prototype (and eventually those for ongoing production) are also 100% accurate since they, too, are created directly from the CAD. Because lightweight carbon fiber is being used, aircraft performance does not have to suffer because of the weight of those parts needed to perform well as a sports car. Speaking of sports car design, state-of-the-art avionics allow the Switchblade to provide all the instruments and communications needed for flying as well as driving using a layout that’s essentially an automotive dashboard (as opposed to an aircraft instrument panel). That means much better forward visibility compared with a typical light airplane.
Another example of an innovation which allows the Switchblade’s design to be state-of-the-art is fly-by-wire technology. Originally used in military aircraft, these systems use electronic signals to small motors (as opposed to hydraulic cylinders or direct mechanical linkages) to move the flight control surfaces as the pilot moves the controls inside the cockpit. Although increasingly common on airliners and other large commercial aircraft, the Switchblade will be the first light aircraft manufactured to use fly-by-wire technology. In particular, both the rudder and the throttle are electronically controlled. This is key to achieving the fly/drive transition, allowing the hand throttle to take over from the driving-mode accelerator pedal (which in turn becomes one of the rudder pedals) in flight-mode.
Facilitating all of this is the Internet. Electronic communication certainly promotes collaboration among team members who are separated by time and space, but that could conceivably be handled with older technologies such as the telephone. What may be the biggest benefit for a project like this, though, may be the research made possible by all of the content available online. In addition to learning what has or hasn’t worked for other projects, the ability to explore possible solutions to specific issues which arise, locate potential off-the-shelf items and seek out expert opinions all allow progress to continue at a far greater pace than would have been possible otherwise.
Of course, bringing the Switchblade to fruition has required a great deal of work. It’s required a consistent vision, inspiring leadership and lots of teamwork. But there’s also a “right place at the right time” element to Samson’s succeeding where many have failed – which the metaphor of “standing on the shoulders of giants” aptly captures. So, in years to come, when you see a Switchblade drive by or fly overhead, you would be right in thinking that this epitomizes innovation in personal transportation. But now perhaps you’ll also reflect on all the prior innovation enabling the Switchblade to become the world’s first commercially successful flying sports car…
– Peter Dessart