Monthly Archives: August 2016

Air travel for the masses

Can’t face the drive to the airport? Why not bypass the whole circus and jump in your two-seat, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) all-electric engine jet aircraft? That’s the vision for the Lilium Jet, an aircraft currently being developed in Germany under the auspices of the European Space Agency’s business incubation center that boasts fly-by-wire joystick controls, retractable landing gear, gull-wing doors, and a claimed top speed of 400 km/h (250 mph). The creators claim that this personal e-jet could be made available to the public as early as 2018.

Combining the vertical take-off capabilities of helicopters and the cruising abilities of fixed-wing aircraft, the Lilium Jet aims to be significantly quieter than other VTOL vehicles such as helicopters, thanks to its 320 kW (435 hp) rechargeable-battery-powered ducted fan engines (arranged in a not-too-dissimilar form to that adorning Darpa’s X-plane prototype).

Designed for recreational flying use during daylight hours, the Lilium Jet should be classed as a Light Sport Aircraft in Europe, with a pilot’s license requiring just a minimum of 20 hours training.

“Our goal is to develop an aircraft for use in everyday life,” says Daniel Wiegand, CEO and one of the company’s four founders. “We are going for a plane that can take off and land vertically and does not need the complex and expensive infrastructure of an airport.”

Whilst flying an aircraft with so little training may seem fraught, with redundant systems for batteries, engines, and electronics (much like other proposed VTOL electric craft, such as the Joby S2), the new craft is designed to be a good deal safer than a helicopter, and with intelligent computer-control for automatic take-off and landing, any chance for pilot error should be significantly reduced.

Initially the Lilium would be only allowed to fly from designated airfields. However the ultimate goal is for it to be able take off vertically from just about any open flat space larger than just 15×15 m (49×49 ft), such as a large garden.

Once airborne the Lilium Jet will swivel its engines into a rear-facing position to propel it along like a fixed-wing aircraft to cruise at speeds of around 300 km/h (180 mph), and to travel up to a claimed distance of 500 km (300 miles) on a single charge. Top speed is aimed at around 400 km/h (250 mph), but this will have an effect on the maximum distance traveled.

Discovery likened to finding a new continent

Thanks to the hard work of explorers and cartographers through the centuries, we’ve now identified all of our planet’s landmasses. But when it comes to the landscape inside the human body new findings still await, and finding them can bring the same thrill that the discovery of a new continent once brought to adventurers. That’s how one researcher describes work that’s been done in identifying the way cells send up flags to the body’s immune system – a discovery that could have a significant impact on how we develop vaccines or treat autoimmune diseases.

In a new study published today in the journal Science, researchers detail work they’ve done with epitopes. These protein fragments are sent out to the surface of cells for scanning by our bodies’ immune systems. When an epitope registers as foreign to the immune system, it goes to work destroying the cell displaying it.

But sometimes the signaling can get complicated when the cell splices two protein bits together and sends them to its surface. Such spliced epitopes have been known about by scientists, but their existence was thought to be rare. The new study shows that about 25 percent of all epitopes are spliced.

This is significant because, while a spliced epitope can let the immune system know that disease is present, it can also confuse the immune system into thinking a healthy signal is actual harmful. And that could be what leads the body to turn on itself in autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

“It’s as if a geographer would tell you they had discovered a new continent, or an astronomer would say they had found a new planet in the solar system,” said study co-author Michael Stumpf from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. “And just as with those discoveries, we have a lot of exploring to do. This could lead to not only a deeper understanding of how the immune system operates, but also suggests new avenues for therapies and drug and vaccine development.”

But the researchers also say that the work comes with a catch.

“The discovery of the importance of spliced peptides could present pros and cons when researching the immune system,” said lead author, Juliane Liepe, also from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences. “For example, the discovery could influence new immunotherapies and vaccines by providing new target epitopes for boosting the immune system, but it also means we need to screen for many more epitopes when designing personalised medicine approaches.”

In other words, be careful what you wish for.

Liepe led the research with Dr. Michele Mishto from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in collaboration with the LaJolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology and Utrecht University.

Russian hoverbike is equally amazing and horrifying

Those from the health and safety brigade might want to click away now, but aspiring amputees should check out this latest manned multirotor out of Russia. The Hoversurf Scorpion is a motorcycle-styled hoverbike with four high-speed props mounted right at leg-amputation level. And it’s already flying high enough to bang the pilot’s head on the rafters.

Everyone saw it coming. As soon as multirotor drones hit the market somewhere around five years ago, it was obvious: one day these clever, self-stabilizing airframes would carry people around. They offered the vertical takeoff and hover advantages of a helicopter, but without the mechanical complexity, high maintenance requirements, difficult four-limbed control scheme or the huge, noisy top rotor.

What wasn’t immediately obvious was just how easy it would be to build one. Today, powerful, responsive electric motors and large lithium-ion battery packs are easily available off the shelf. Accelerometers, inertial measurement units and GPS chips have become incredibly cheap and plentiful. Flight control hardware and software has matured incredibly quickly in a few short years.

So while established aviation companies are most definitely getting on board with a new wave of electric VTOL aircraft development, there’s also a maverick fringe of crazy inventors making these things in their back yards and factory spaces.

And where the big aviation companies take a safety-first risk mitigation approach, these guys are happy to use themselves as guinea pigs. They’ll run some unmanned tests on the airframe, then hop on board and try a couple of tethered flights before setting up a video camera, jumping on board and taking to the skies. It’s awesome, as well as viscerally terrifying, to watch.

Take this latest contraption from Moscow-based Hoversurf: a quadcopter hoverbike styled after an adventure motorcycle and lifted by four wooden rotors around the 1-meter (3-ft) range in length. A video released last week shows a rider, clad in dirt bike gear, flying the hoverbike in a warehouse, nail-bitingly close to the roof support beams. It appears to be reasonably stable.