Like everybody else, I watched the video of that Star Wars looking Hanna-Barbera themed Jetson ONE motorcycle-quadcopter-speedster-space cruiser and thought it looked fun. But as I was smiling, I was also brimming with skepticism (okay, schadenfreude). I’ve been around aircraft for a while, and I’ve been a student of the history of sport and light aviation for almost as long, so I know that there are huge built-in obstacles at every step along the way toward them becoming a product that someone can buy and safely fly.
There are nearly endless ways to screw up the design.
There are even more possible ways to get tripped up in executing that design, all of which might be amplified by the concept being off to begin with).
The regulators are in the business of making it hard to get a new flying anything approved, as they should be. And they will most likely figure out the ways in which the concept was flawed and the ways in which the execution of it was wrongheaded or shortsighted just plain dumb. It happens to the best of companies. And regulators do sometimes miss red-flagging those issues, e.g., the 737 Max debacle, though nobody wins when they do overlook something critical.
So what does this have to do with a far-fetched little sky scooter hailing from Nordic lands? Everything. And mostly in a good way.
The realization that the Jetson ONE might be the exception to the rule came to me gradually. But the more I thought about it, the more I went through my unofficial list of the ways this could go wrong, the less skeptical I became.
First, regulations. As an ultralight, presuming it can be built and weigh in at 254 pounds or less, the regulations are largely non-existent. A Part 103 craft isn’t an aircraft at all, at least not according to the regulation. It’s an aerial vehicle. The maker doesn’t need to get it approved, certificated, or approved for production. They just need to build a thing that doesn’t exceed the limits of Part 103 and convince people to buy it. If that seems unthinkably reckless, well, get a time machine and tell that to the FAA, which dreamed up 103 almost 40 odd years ago. The Jetson ONE is pegged to go as fast as 60 mph—the legal limit is 63. It’s got a seating capacity of one, check. It will stall at zero mph, way slower than 27 mph, the UL maximum, and it will carry zero gallons of gas, five gallons less than the UL tankage capacity.
But what about the thing itself? How safe it is likely to be? Well, as far as ultralight rules are concerned, it doesn’t matter. But it matters to me and it matters to you, because carnage is never a good thing, so I had to look at this question closely.
When ultralights first burst onto the scene even before the birth of 103 in 1982, they had all the built-in issues of any fixed wing aircraft, and then some. The “then some” part is noteworthy. They were built by companies some of which weren’t experienced at building aircraft, which was as scary a thing in real life as it is in the imagination. They had a lot of built-in drag, they could stall and spin just like any other fixed wing airplane, and they were often being flown by people with zero aeronautical training.
Before a sailcloth clad mob descends on me, the ultralights that emerged after the segment came to its senses were for the most part good airplanes, the industry banded together to figure out how to train pilots in a one-person aircraft (they cheated and then apologized later), and they made safety into an industry-wide effort.
Despite Santyana’s suggestion that studying history immunizes one from repeating it being patently and provably false, today things really are different. And that is not because human nature has changed—far from it. It’s because technology has come to the rescue.
That technology is primarily and in this specific case computerized flight control that prevents pilots from doing anything too stupid. What could go wrong? Any number of things, actually, but with triple redundant systems, if they’re integrated well, the chances for a systems failure could be greatly reduced. And remember, the chances of a systems flight control failure in a Part 103 ultralight with a meat-based flight control system and a self-trained pilot are approaching 100 percent. So, this is orders of magnitudes of orders of magnitude better, even if it’s not perfect.
The other thing that will freak out pilots with any knowledge of multi-engine flight and its failure modes is the nightmare thought of engine failure on a small quad-engined craft. The company says that the ONE will fly with ONE engine inop, which is great if true. But the kicker for me is the whole-aircraft parachute recovery system, which will fire off automatically, or so they say if anything goes super wrong. So there’s a backup to a system that can continue to function with a missing motor by using a triple-redundant full-time flight control system with built-in envelope protection.
Once I’d realized that this kind of craft might be a game changer, I asked myself a couple of follow-ups. Is this an aircraft I would fly right now. Probably. Very probably.
And the next one was an eye-opener. Would this be a compelling product if it cost $200,000, could go 180 mph and could fly for three hours? Remember, it lands and takes off vertically and hovers automatically. Of course it would be. And if they could somehow improve that endurance to 45 minutes or an hour? This one-seater might hover right off the shelves.
And granted, at a proposed price of just under $100,000, a figure that’s sure to rise, and with a flight endurance of just 20 minutes, the Jetson ONE is not that compelling product.
Yet. I repeat: Yet. And it might wind up being some other product form some other company. In fact, it almost certainly would be.
And of course the endurance is way too short, and scaling up any design like this will be hard, as weight increases fast as soon as you start enlarging the drawings of any aircraft, even more so when batteries are involved. But the fact that I was even having, that we are even having this conversation says something.