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Would You Rather Have a Private Helicopter or a Flying Car?

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You know what would be cool?

If we had our own personal mini-helicopters that were almost as easy to fly as cars are to drive, and we could take off from our backyards, soar over the traffic and peer down at the earthbound masses, trudging along below.

That would be cool.

For MyCopter, researchers here are trying to figure out how to make personal helicopters easy to fly for ordinary people. They started by collaborating with former military test pilots, and have moved on to testing their flight systems with people who have no flying experience.

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“You have so many man-hours lost sitting in traffic jams, and you have a lot of space above us,” Dr. Mark White, Chief Developer said. “Could you utilize that dimension to offload the road usage that we’ve got? Can you travel from your home to your city-center work location without getting stopped in traffic jams?”

MyCopter is not about designing such a vehicle, but figuring out how it might work. Part of the challenge would be creating a way for masses of airborne cars to fly under airplanes, not to crash into one another, and not to require thousands of new air traffic controllers or physical infrastructure.

The project was the brainchild of Heinrich H. Bülthoff, director of perception, cognition and action at the Max Planck Institute.

“There’s a longstanding dream of flying cars, and there have been many proposals and attempts over the years, but there are still a lot of problems to solve before one can actually build such a flying car and get it to work,” Dr. Bülthoff said in a phone interview.

At the Max Planck Institute, they are studying driver feedback technologies that are already showing up in cars, like vibrating steering wheels and warnings when you drift out of a lane that could be used to help pilots stay in their proper flight path. They are also looking at how to display highways that armies of airborne commuters could follow.

At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, researchers are studying how to avoid collisions. Among other things, they are looking at how birds fly in dense flocks.

At the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis in Karlsruhe, Germany, the researchers are surveying Europeans about what they might think about flying cars, to see how they would be accepted.

Surveys in Zurich, for example, found that “people liked the idea of going to work and avoiding the morning and evening traffic jams, but they didn’t want these flying cars all day,” Dr. Bülthoff said. “They wanted to be able to sit on their balconies and enjoy the view and not have to see a swarm of cars.”

Finally, at the German Aerospace Center in Braunschweig, researchers will come together and try out the technologies developed at the various institutions in a real test helicopter.

Cutting to the chase here: When will cars fly?

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The next phase of MyCopter, which officially ends this year, would be to collaborate with private companies on potential designs, but funding has not yet been approved.

Some small companies are already developing flying cars, like Pal-V of the Netherlands, which aims to bring a small car that can turn into a helicopter onto the market by 2016, priced at around $300,000.

Mike Stekelenburg, chief operating officer of Pal-V, said the biggest long-term problem for mass-marketing such vehicles will not be piloting, but environmental issues.

“Automatic pilots have already been out there for a long time, and they are already experimenting with the electronics to let cars drive by themselves,” he said. “The bigger challenge is getting away from the fossil fuels. You need something renewable that will not increase carbon dioxide emissions.”

Dr. Bülthoff said he believed small, light helicopters could be competitive because they would avoid sitting in traffic and travel more directly, though environmental groups might take some convincing.