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Blade Runner’s Spinners: The Shape of Things to Come?

Posted on Thu, October 5, 2017
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A photo of the Blade Runner "Spinner" flying car movie prop.

The Blade Runner “Spinner” flying car movie prop on display at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, Washington.

The future represented by Ridley Scott in his 1982 darkly dystopian Blade Runner (Warner Brothers) featured little that would make people want to experience the Los Angeles of 2019 – except maybe the flying cars. These “Spinners” reappear in the sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (opening October 5), albeit in a more compact form. Scott overcame the aerodynamic challenges of vertical flight through simple movie magic: the fictional Spinners do not use mechanisms for flight that are available in the early 21st century and appear to rely on the vague mechanisms of anti-gravity propulsion that have fueled many science fiction franchises. Given that anti-gravity propulsion is not on the immediate horizon and we are unlikely to see Spinners in the two years between now and 2019 (and fortunately, no killer clones/androids either), are there any hopes for flying cars that can operate from rooftops by 2049?

Interestingly, 2017 has proven to be an exciting time in the field of flying cars, as a plethora of projects are underway to create small, one or two seat autonomous “air taxis” for urban spaces. Ignoring the anti-gravity, there are some commonalities between these efforts and the Spinners–they are small, not particularly fast, and are limited in range to an urban environment. These emerging aircraft are a fusion of several significant technological trends, including distributed electric propulsion, as well as the improvements in batteries and advancements in artificial intelligence that have been fueling the self-driving car industry. Most bear a closer resemblance to overgrown hobbyist drones than to conventional helicopters. Their lift typically comes from multiple rotors, varying from a pair of large ducted fans to 18 small rotors. These electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft fall under the category of what the aerospace industry calls Transformative Vertical Flight (TVF).

A concept visualization for NASA’s X-57 “Maxwell” aircraft.

A concept visualization for NASA’s X-57 “Maxwell” (named for the 19th century Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell). This distributed electric propulsion system creates high-induced lift over the wing at low speeds, allowing for smaller wings. Though this aircraft is not intended for rooftop takeoffs and landings, the same approach is being used to develop vertical takeoff aircraft without the complexity, cost, and weight associated with helicopters and tiltrotors.  

The eVTOLs may be broken up into three general categories: those lifted with rotors alone, those lifted with a combination of wings and rotors (also called “compound” aircraft), and small, one-person transports called “hoverbikes.” Some of the proposals are similar to the Blade Runner Spinners in that they are “roadable,” meaning they can drive as well as fly. In all, there are nearly three dozen active programs underway in the three categories, with about half of them in flight test, or soon to be. The American Helicopter Society, the leading engineering community for the vertical flight industry, has created a website and e-newsletter to follow the development of these aircraft.

Aviation has long had a boom and bust cycle of innovators working on flying cars and other personal aircraft projects, many examples of which are in the National Air and Space Museum collection, including the Hiller Flying Platform, Hiller Hornet, and Autogiro Company of America AC-35. Those designs were either too expensive, too noisy, or too dangerous to be practical.

This time around, innovators think they have those issues solved. Some large companies, including a few with distinguished aviation legacies like Airbus, and other powerhouses like Uber, have joined the fray. A surprising number of deep-pocketed investors, and even cities, like Dubai, have also jumped on board. Assessing whether this is just a fad or is leading somewhere truly exciting is a difficult challenge for aerospace industry observers.

The eVTOLs have several advantages over traditional helicopters. By using high-efficiency electric motors connected to a sophisticated computer, they do away with the heavy gearboxes, drive shafts, and control systems of conventional helicopters. A sizeable percentage of the helicopter’s rotor disc near the rotor hub produces very little lift because of its low rotational velocity compared with the blade tips. Multiple rotor systems can produce more lift in a smaller area. These factors allow batteries to power the eVTOL, rather than a heavy combustion powerplant that requires heavy fuel. As a result, these light aircraft do not need significantly reinforced rooftop landing sites and pose far less hazard to people or structures in the event of an accident.

Hiller Model 1031-A-1 Flying Platform

The National Air and Space Museum displays one of the first examples of what might be called a “hoverbike” today. The military funded development of the Hiller 1031-A-1 Flying Platform to provide better mobility for soldiers on atomic battlefields. It was expensive, noisy, slow, and unsafe – all problems facing builders of today’s hoverbikes.

Now, the bad news. The eVTOLs have more than a few challenges to overcome. While helicopters have certain parts of their landing envelope that are problematic in the event of engine failure, the eVTOLs do not have the ability to glide or autorotate to a safe landing in the event of emergency. This means that they require a Ballistic Recovery System (BRS) or similar to provide a viable mode for letdown in the event of power loss. As anyone who has heard a consumer drone in the vicinity knows, even a few pounds lifted by multiple rotors sounds like a swarm of angry bees. That said, the acoustics of multi-rotor eVTOLs are distinctly different than helicopters, with far less of the “whomp-whomp” most associated with the Huey, which can carry more than several miles. Limited range and speed will also limit the potential applications of eVTOLs. 

A model of the Volocopter 2X.

One of the most successful eVTOLs today is the Volocopter 2X. This eighteen-rotor carbon-fiber frame two-passenger aircraft is undergoing extensive testing, including autonomous trials in Dubai.

However, the real challenges for TVF are less in overcoming aeronautical and mechanical engineering challenges and more in beating the economic challenges. For eVTOLs to be successful, they have to offer better performance in getting from point A to B without significant apparent penalties in cost or risk. Because of their limited speed and range, eVTOLs are most likely to be useful in an urban setting where even short commutes can be problematic. This means they will have to be faster than existing combinations of surface transport. Even if you can commute from rooftop to rooftop, unless most buildings have landing pads, surface transport will still be necessary in some part, and building owners will have to invest in accommodation for easy and safe movement onto their rooftops.

A photo of NASA’s GL-10 eVTOL.

NASA’s GL-10 “Greased Lightning” is a small uninhabited eVTOL demonstrator to explore the potential and challenges of distributed electric propulsion.

The vision of urban spaces transformed by vertical flight aircraft has been pursued by many leading architects and planners, including Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Norman Bel Geddes, all of whom saw inventions like the Autogiro and helicopter as potentially transformative of the urban cityscape. Unlike the Blade Runner franchise, which portrayed the Spinners as almost the exclusive province of government authority, modernist designers, like eVTOL advocates today, saw urban air mobility as the logical evolution of personal vehicles. For that to happen, roads and mass transit will have to become far worse, and the eVTOLs will have to establish a strong safety record.

This creates a chicken-and-egg conundrum:How can eVTOLs establish themselves as a viable form of transport if people don’t have access to them? One answer may be in their use in non-passenger carrying applications like aerial spraying for agriculture or autonomous cargo transport. In other words, the eVTOLs are perhaps the next step up from the relatively small-scale delivery drones that Amazon and others are testing. Regardless, significant changes in the regulation and certification of aircraft will have to come about first, and that has never been a particularly rapid process.

Autogiro Company of America AC-35 at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

The two-seat AC-35 Autogiro was developed for a Department of Commerce competition to create an aerial "Model T." James G. Ray. vice president and chief pilot of the Autogiro Company of America, landed the AC-35 in a small downtown park in Washington. D.C. on October 2, 1936.

What are some of the paths forward to new innovations in TVF? Uber recently sponsored its “Elevate” summit and has helped establish a community of innovators, while the American Helicopter Society has facilitated TVF workshops. Boeing is sponsoring the GoFly prize, awarding $2 million to a single passenger TVF aircraft. The Government of Dubai has been an enthusiastic supporter of what it calls Autonomous Air Taxis (AAT) and has provided incentives for developers to trial aircraft in their airspaces. Several have already made flights, though without passengers.  

Will the Los Angeles of 2049 feature Spinner-like vehicles? As a historian, I can’t predict the future, but I can say that vertical flight is in a renaissance like we have not seen since the 1950s. New approaches to flight are emerging that are fueling a reconceptualization of autonomous flight in the same ways that driverless cars are causing a reevaluation of how society interfaces with mobility. It’s easy for those of us that are observers of current aerospace trends to be simultaneously skeptical and hopeful for eVTOLs, as there is much uncertainty in the current endeavors. For anyone with a casual interest in aerial mobility, the next few years should make for an exciting show.

In the meantime, take a look at the Blade Runner franchise films and image yourself trying to navigate a megalopolis from one destination to another. Does having a flying vehicle complicate the urban environment or simplify it? The answers are often not straightforward and success will depend as much on the advances in aeronautics as it will on the form and function of future cityscapes, which hopefully will feature a bit less social collapse than in the world of Blade Runner.