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How close are we to owning personal aerial vehicles?

01 April 2015

Road congestion is a fact of everyday life for many people. A possible solution for the future is expanding personal transport to include aviation. High above the roads, the routes become much more flexible, and travellers can reach their destinations faster.

Image courtesy of DLR

Researchers at the German Aerospace Centre's (DLR's) Braunschweig site recently presented the results of their work for an EU research project, dubbed 'myCopter'. The DLR-developed myCopter steering wheel system, which allows users to operate the aerial vehicles of tomorrow almost like cars, is one of the highlights of the myCopter project.

Numerous other questions such as collision prevention, swarm flight or pilot training were analysed within the framework of the project, which also sought to learn more about the opportunities and challenges of an accessible personal air transport system, as well as taking into consideration the expectations of potential users. With an initial investigation of the possible social impact of the project, myCopter is clearly pioneering the field of future personal air transport systems.

Personal aerial vehicles (PAVs) will enable people to go where they need to go by air, but for this to happen, the users - or 'pilots' - of such systems will need a more efficient and intuitively designed control system. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges is engineering a flight control system that will be amenable to anyone wishing to fly a PAV.

At the moment, the control systems found in modern helicopters are complex and using them requires a great deal of training. Stefan Levedag, who heads DLR’s Institute of Flight Systems, says his team has now managed to develop a steering wheel based control system – with automatic control technology at its heart – that makes flying far simpler. “The range of possible applications extends way beyond PAVs,” he adds – and that brings clear benefits to other airborne vehicles as well.

Steering a car comes naturally to any driver; the plan is to use this innate skill to create a more intuitive system for aircraft control with the aim of substantially simplifying the training required for future PAV pilots.

'Take four and make three' 
This was the concept behind the new myCopter control system. At the moment, helicopter pilots are required to monitor four control axes, which demands absolute concentration, especially when hovering, as a pilot must operate both sticks and pedals simultaneously to maintain a stable position in the air.

However, the cyclic stick – responsible for movements about the longitudinal axis (roll) and the transverse axis (pitch) – is missing from the myCopter steering wheel system. According to Bianca Schuchardt of the DLR Institute of Flight Systems, the myCopter pilot simply turns the steering wheel as required to fly the craft in the intended direction.

Currently, one stick remains, and this is exclusively responsible for altitude. An alternative approach might be to use a paddle fitted to the steering wheel. Just as with the accelerator and brake in a car, the pedals control speed and can even be used to control hover. An eight-way switch on the myCopter steering wheel provides control of reverse and lateral flight.

The steering wheel has no completed its ‘maiden flight’, thanks to the virtual environment provided by the Air Vehicle Simulator (AVES) operated by DLR in Braunschweig. The next stage will involve actual flight-testing of the system using the DLR ACT/FHS research helicopter, which is based on a Eurocopter EC 135.

Out of the tailback and into swarm flight
According to Heinrich Bülthoff from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, the key to simplifying helicopter flight for everyday purposes, in addition to the controls themselves, is to introduce suitable sensors and screen content that make piloting the aircraft as intuitive as possible for the user. Others question how the numerous individual pilots could be coordinated and what specific PAV training they would require.

The aerodynamic PAV model and the curriculum for training future pilots has also been a topic of study at the University of Liverpool. And students at the École Polytechnique Féderale de Lausanne (EFPL) have used unmanned aerial vehicles to conduct research into collision prevention, swarm flight and automatic landing site detection.

Meanwhile, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) has been investigating control strategies for PAVs using unmanned aerial vehicles to test take-off, landing and navigation, and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has been analysing the socio-technological aspects of the project and how the introduction of PAVs might affect society.

DLR has used the EC 135 ACT/FHS research helicopter to conduct demonstrations of selected technologies developed within the framework of the project. As Bianca Schuchardt explains, the team is supporting the development of aerodynamic models and producing a 'highway-in-the-sky’ display for PAVs – a kind of intuitive navigational tool for pilots, with a tunnel display in the cockpit indicating the optimal flight path.

The myCopter project has now come to the end of its four year-long study. It will be fascinating to see how the Personal Aerial Vehicle concept will progress, and whether or not we are likely to enter a world where tens of thousands of commuters take to the skies as a normal part of their everyday lives.

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