Towards the 100 MPG Airplane
By Bill Moore
When you talk about CAFE in the automotive world, everyone usually thinks you're referring to the EPA's Corporate Average Fuel Economy.
But to Dr. Brien Seely, the president of the CAFE Foundation it has a somewhat different meaning. It is the acronym for Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency, which seeks to measure the relative fuel efficiency compared to payload of a wide range of light civilian aircraft.
Starting in the 1980's, the Foundation organized an annual series of competitions called the CAFE 400 races that measured, with the assistance and funding of NASA, the efficiency of dozens of experimental and production light aircraft.
Now the not-for-profit Foundation has set its sights even higher and has begun to examine the carbon emissions of general aviation aircraft and is in the process of establishing yet another competition, this one called the Green Prize. NASA has funded to the tune of $300,000, divided several different categories, the largest portion of which ($150,000) will go to reducing aircraft noise; and $50,00 of which will be for improved fuel efficiency or miles per gallon.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Foundations efforts is the development of PAVs -- Personal Air Vehicles -- that will be simple to fly, be largely computer controlled from short take-off and landing (STOL), fly at better than 100 mph and -- now the thinking is -- be electrically-powered.
In order to investigate the feasibility of electric flight -- and the 100 mpg airplane -- CAFE Foundation recently held its second annual electric aircraft symposium in San Francisco, attracting the likes of Google's Larry Page and technology futurist Esther Dyson.
In this 37-minute interview, Dr. Seely talks about the goal of electric PAVs that would allow virtually anyone to transcend the gridlock of our current two-dimensional transportation system into the three dimensions of flight in small, safe, self-navigating, relatively fast aircraft that might have ranges of 100 or so miles, sufficient for many short commutes.
Already a number of aircraft from UAVs like those built by AeroVironment and others to two-place motor glider/sailplanes like the Pipistrel Taurus Electro pictured above. APAME in France has flown an all-electric airplane, as has Boeing in Spain. Here in the USA, Sonex is close to flight testing their own electric-powered airplane that they estimate will have a 1-hour flight range on its lithium ion battery pack and proprietary motor and controller.
Interestingly, Dr. Seely's PowerPoint presentation delivered at the recent symposium highlighted what he calls the "Four Phases of Disruptive Technology":
- It is Ridiculed by those ignorant of its potential
- It is Subverted by its market competitors
- It is Popularized to the point of affordability
- It becomes Indispensible
To listen to Dr. Seely's vision of the future PAVs and sustainable flight, that someday may include electric propulsion, use either of the two MP3 players above or download the file to your computer for transfer to and playback on your favorite MP3 device.