The Rise And Fall Of The Fan Car

The advent of aerodynamic wings in motorsport was one of the most dramatic changes in the mid-20th century. Suddenly, it was possible to generate more grip at speed outside of altering suspension setups and fitting grippier tyres. However, it was just the beginning, and engineers began to look at more advanced ways of generating downforce without the drag penalty incurred by fitting wings to a racecar.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of this was the fan car. Mechanically complex and arguably dangerous, the technology offered huge downforce with minimal drag. However, the fan car’s time in the spotlight was vanishingly brief, despite the promise inherent in the idea. Let’s take a look at the basic theory behind the fan car, how they worked in practice, and why we don’t see them on racetracks today. Continue reading “The Rise And Fall Of The Fan Car”

How Efficient Can An Airplane Be? The Celera 500L Sets To Find Out

One of the current hype trends is the supposedly imminent revolution in air transport. So many companies showing digital renderings and mockups to illustrate their own utopic vision for the future, reaching fevered pitch at events like CES 2020. But aviation has a long history of machinery that turned out to be impractical. Wouldn’t it be great if a company focused their resources on building real aircraft and get real data before cranking up their hype machine? The people at Otto Aviation thought so, and their Celera 500L has reportedly taken to the skies.

If you said “Otto who?” you are not alone. The company has zero PR activity to speak of. Limited internet attention started from aviation fans spotting the Celera 500L under construction at its Southern California airfield. Its unusual exterior appearance and proximity to Hollywood made some dismiss it at first as a movie prop. Anyone with a passing interest in aerospace engineering could immediately see aerodynamics was a priority in this design, its long thin unswept glider-like wings implies the goal is fuel efficiency rather than speed. This was confirmed by internet sleuths uncovering patents filed by people associated with the company.

The patents include very lofty fuel efficiency goals, and industry veterans are skeptical. Fuel is a huge factor in aircraft operating costs where small increases in efficiency translate to big dollars over a plane’s lifetime. It’s hard to believe every other plane maker would deliberately leave so much on the table. There must be far more to the 500L inside that teardrop shaped body, with innovations and potentially making some trade-offs no other company has made. We can see two of them from the outside: the 500L traded off some pilot visibility for aerodynamics, and it has very little ground clearance to absorb the impact of less-than-ideal landings.

It’s certainly possible the ideas leading to this plane will fail to pan out in reality like so many ideas before them. Aerospace engineering is a field littered with debris of concepts that looked great on paper but crashed against a hard and unforgiving reality. But at least Otto Aviation is trying something new by building real hardware to get real data, something well worth recognizing in a sea of hyped up fantasy renderings.

[Photo via SoCal Airshow Review]

Maybe Your Next Robot Should Be A Cyclocrane

At my university, we were all forced to take a class called Engineering 101. Weirdly, we could take it at any point in our careers at the school. So I put it off for more interesting classes until I was forced to take it in one of my final years. It was a mess of a class and never quite seemed to build up to a theme or a message. However, every third class or so they’d dredge up a veritable fossil from their ranks of graduates. These greybeards would sit at the front of the class and tell us about incredible things. It was worth the other two days of nondescript rambling by whichever engineering professor drew the short straw for one of their TAs.

The patent drawing.
The patent drawing.

One greybeard in particular had a long career in America’s unending string of, “Build cool stuff to help us make bad guys more deader,” projects. He worked on stealth boats, airplanes with wings that flex, and all sorts of incredibly cool stuff. I forgot about the details of those, but the one that stuck with me was the Cyclocrane. It had a ton of issues, and as the final verdict from a DARPA higher-up with a military rank was that it, “looked dumb as shit” (or so the greybeard informed us).

A Cyclo-What?

The Cyclocrane was a hybrid airship. Part aerodynamic and part aerostatic, or more simply put, a big balloon with an airplane glued on.  Airships are great because they have a constant static lift, in nearly all cases this is buoyancy from a gas that is lighter than air. The ship doesn’t “weigh” anything, so the only energy that needs to be expended is the energy needed to move it through the air to wherever it needs to go. Airplanes are also great, but need to spend fuel to lift themselves off the ground as well as point in the right direction. Helicopters are cool because they make so much noise that the earth can’t stand to be near them, providing lift. Now, there’s a huge list of pros and cons for each and there’s certainly a reason we use airplanes and not dirigibles for most tasks. The Cyclocrane was designed to fit an interesting use case somewhere in the middle.

In the logging industry they often use helicopters to lift machinery in and out of remote areas. However, lifting two tons with a helicopter is not the most efficient way to go about it. Airplanes are way more efficient but there’s an obvious problem with that. They only reach their peak efficiency at the speed and direction for which their various aerodynamic surfaces have been tuned. Also worth noting that they’re fairly bad at hovering. It’s really hard to lift a basket of chainsaws out of the woods safely when the vehicle doing it is moving at 120mph.

The cyclocrane wanted all the efficiency of a dirigible with the maneuverability of a helicopter. It wanted to be able to use the effective lifting design of an airplane wing too. It wanted to have and eat three cakes. It nearly did.

A Spinning Balloon with Wings

Four wings stick out of a rotating balloon. The balloon provides half of the aerostatic lift needed to hold the plane and the cargo up in the air. The weight is tied to the static ends of the balloon and hang via cables below the construction. The clever part is the four equidistant wings sticking out at right angles from the center of the ship. At the tip of each wing is a construction made up of a propellor and a second wing. Using this array of aerofoils and engines it was possible for the cyclocrane to spin its core at 13 revolutions per minute. This produced an airspeed of 60 mph for the wings. Which resulted in a ton of lift when the wings were angled back and forth in a cyclical pattern. All the while, the ship remaining perfectly stationary.

There’s a really great description of its operation in the article this photo came from.


It really didn't like strong winds.
It really didn’t like strong winds.

Now the ship had lots of problems. It was too heavy. It needed bigger engines. It was slow. It looked goofy. It didn’t like strong winds. The biggest problem was a lack of funding. It’s possible that the cyclocrane could have changed a few industries if its designers had been able to keep testing it. In the end it had a mere seven hours of flying time logged with its only commercial contract before the money was gone.

However! There may be some opportunity for hackers here. If you want to make the quadcopter nerds feel a slight sting of jealousy, a cyclocrane is the project for you. A heavy lift robot that’s potentially more efficient than a balloon with fans on it is pretty neat. T2here’s a bit of reverse engineering to be done before a true performance statement can be made. If nothing else. It’s just a cool piece of aerospace history that reminds us of the comforting fact that we haven’t even come close to inventing it all yet.

If you’d like to learn more there’s a ton of information and pictures on one of the engineer’s website. Naturally wikipedia has a bit to say. There’s also decent documentary on youtube, viewable below.

Photo Credits: Rob Crimmins and Hal Denison