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Video Pick: An Airplane That Flies Itself

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Video Pick: An Airplane That Flies Itself

Video Pick: An Airplane That Flies Itself

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Now, it's time for our Video Pick of the week. This week, Flora Lichtman, our video producer has found one of yours. Yeah, we asked you to send in videos all the time. We've got one of your videos that you've sent us. And this one was sent to us by Stephen Morris. He's an engineer by training and he is the president of MLB, which makes autonomous planes, planes that fly themselves.

And one of his company's latest inventions is a tiny plane that flies itself, which you can see zipping around on our Web site at sciencefriday.com. Go to sciencefriday.com, you'll see the Video Pick of the week on the left side there and then, you go watch it in the big screen or little screen. Dr. Morris, welcome to the program.

Dr. STEPHEN MORRIS (CEO, MLB Co.): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: This looks more like a little helicopter thing than a flying airplane.

Dr. MORRIS: Yeah. Well, actually, it's a combination of two concepts, a ducted fan airplane that can hover, that's merged to the back of a very efficient airplane that might look more like a sail plane. So you take the ducted fan and replace the tail of a normal airplane with this ducted fan, and now you can hover it. And that allows it to takeoff and land vertically and fly very efficiently when it's tilted over and using its wing to produce lift.

FLATOW: So it's like your personal hovercraft that can fly you some place?

Dr. MORRIS: Well, yeah. If you build it big enough to carry a human being, you could have it completely automated and it could land and take off in your front yard. But the version shown in the video is designed for aerial mapping so that it just carries a camera payload.

FLATOW: Is that what your intention is?

Dr. MORRIS: The initial application, yeah, is for aerial mapping, for doing things like doing carbon credit monitoring, to assess the carbon footprint in various parts of the world or to also support the military so that they'd have an airplane that could launch and land anywhere without needing runways, catapults, nets, all this infrastructure that they normally have to use to launch an unmanned airplane.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Could they attach weapons to it?

Dr. MORRIS: Yeah, you could. There are weapons small enough to fit on the version shown in the video and you could scale it to carry weapons. That's not our primary intent. But, yeah, that's the direction that a lot of the unmanned aircraft are going in the military these days.

FLATOW: Yeah. These pilotless drones, I'm thinking of.

Dr. MORRIS: Yeah. Because, you know, in a military application is once you see something happening, you want to be able to react to it either by calling people in to do something about it or shooting at it. And yeah, this airplane can certainly carry weapons.

FLATOW: But you could also use it sort of as a personal troop transporter if you...

Dr. MORRIS: Yeah. One of the concepts that we had would be to deliver special operations troops to a remote, austere area or to extract wounded troops from that area. You know, the big innovation in aircraft these days is the automatic flight controls. And there are so may airplanes flying now that are able to fly themselves using computers that the ability to just put somebody in as a payload and not have them even understand how the airplane works yet you can deliver them safely, that's the way things are now. You could actually do that.

FLATOW: Yeah. So you could put somebody's wounded or whatever, needs delivery, even to a hospital, perhaps...

Dr. MORRIS: Yup.

FLATOW: ...right? Even civilians here, put them in this chair and it takes off on its own and flies around and gets to the hospital.

Dr. MORRIS: Yup. Or in a more - less serious application, just the dream of the flying car. You know, you land and take off in your front yard and it delivers you to work.

FLATOW: Until you hit something.

(Soundbite of laughing)

Dr. MORRIS: Well, with, you know, the computer controls and the automation and the air space that's coming along these days...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. MORRIS: ...it can actually all be much safer than manned operations of aircraft.

FLATOW: Because we - going back to "Popular Mechanics" 60 years ago, they were talking about these personal airplanes all the time that never happened. And I think one of the reasons is because the air space is so crowded.

Dr. MORRIS: Well, yeah. But you know, with GPS guidance and computer control, you can deconflict all of that automatically now. We could be much safer. And we can have a higher density of aircraft in the same air space using all of these satellite guidance and computer systems.

FLATOW: So are you in production of these now?

Dr. MORRIS: The V-Bat is finishing up its development phase. We've been flying it extensively and we're going to enter production within the next 12 months. We produce other unmanned aircraft that don't take off and land vertically. So those other ones are in production. But the V-Bat is coming along in the next few months.

FLATOW: Now, if you want to see Richard Gordon's V-Bat, you can go to our Web site at sciencefriday.com where you can see the V-Bat taking off and landing. Thank you, Dr. Morris.

Dr. MORRIS: Thank you.

FLATOW: To Stephen Morris - I said Richard - Stephen Morris is president of MLB. And if you go to our Web site, sciencefriday.com, you can see the V-Bat there.

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