Go anywhere and land anywhere quickly and quietly

Saturday, October 12th, 2019

Kitty Hawk’s HVSD — or Heaviside, after renowned physicist and electrical engineer Oliver Heaviside — is an electric aircraft designed to go anywhere and land anywhere quickly and quietly:

The aircraft is 100 times quieter than a helicopter, the pair said. And it’s faster. Thrun says HVSD, which has a range of about 100 miles, can travel from San Jose to San Francisco in 15 minutes. The aircraft can be flown autonomously or manually, but even then most of the tasks of flying are handled by the computer, not the human.

Moments after walking around HVSD, the decibel meter, still in Thrun’s grasp, gets put to work. A helicopter that is stationed about 150 feet from where we’re standing is fired up. After two minutes, the helicopter lifts off, its whop-whop-whop lingering even as the craft is more than 600 feet in the air and begins its circular flight path around the testing area. The meter pops above 85 decibels and stays there for several minutes. The decibels go beyond 88 decibels at landing.

Later, after the helicopter lands and the engine slowly winds down, the test turns to HVSD.

An engineer, who is standing in an open air tower, brings HVSD suddenly to life. Unlike a helicopter, the HVSD starts and lifts off in just seconds. There is sound as it lifts off — hitting about 80 decibels — but what’s striking is the brevity. The take-off sound lasts fewer than 10 seconds. As HVSD gains altitude and then circles above us, the only sound is a few engineers and technicians talking nearby.

Once Thrun quiets the crew, the noise falls below 40 decibels, which is what a typical, quiet residential neighborhood registers at. HVSD is nearby at about 600 feet of altitude, but it is barely audible as it circles above us. An office with an air conditioning running might be about 50 decibels, Thrun says for comparison.

“The calculus here is that this has to be socially acceptable for people,” Thrun says. “There’s a reason why helicopters are not: they’re for rich people and they’re noisy.”

(Hat tip to Hans G. Schantz, whose Hidden Truth novels feature Heaviside.)


  1. Ezra says:

    This sounds all too good to be true. I can recall that several decades ago no less than forty or so such flying saucer type vehicles had been proposed. Each was touted as a sure thing. The last I recall was flying saucer type, autonomous or man-controlled flight, eight engines and four computers, you did not even need a pilots license to know how to fly. Never heard of it ever again.

  2. With a name like that, you can’t help but like the project. I wish them well!

  3. Freddo says:

    Interesting platform. Of course comparing what is a mostly-unmanned testbed with a helicopter that has been cleared for public & commercial usage is a bit disingenuous, but let’s blame the journalist for that.

  4. CVLR says:

    Ezra, the difference between then and now is that you can buy a quadcopter for a couple hundred bucks, ArduPilot is as good as anything available to corporations and governments, and SpaceX is using consumer electronics equipment in its rockets.

    That said, Freddo is quite right. The gulf between what’s possible in manned vs. unmanned is vast, and there isn’t necessarily much reason to think that Google will succeed with any less bowing and scraping than Boeing.

    And after the Boeing catastrophe, the FAA is going to regain its gestapo attitude — guaranteed.

    (Thanks, Boeing.)

  5. DLR says:

    Looks like we finally got our flying car

  6. DVDR says:

    What about load lift differences?

  7. CVLR says:

    DVDR: “What about load lift differences?”

    Steep glide slope vis-à-vis distributed electric propulsion, very high disk loading, electric’s high peak power, or something else?

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