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Flying Cars and National Parks

Opener's "Blackfly" VTOL aircraft is happy to land on grass or water.

I wrote earlier about the impact of Electric personal VTOL aircraft -- "flying cars" -- on national parks and other wilderness areas. As these vehicles get better, and more and more silent, they will create an interesting debate around the two forces in the management of the wilderness -- conservation and recreation.

Executive summary:

  • With VTOL vehicles, everybody will be able to access almost anywhere in parks and the wilderness with ease. Including the disabled and elderly.
  • This will result in much more travel to these places, and some noise from the vehicles.
  • There will no longer be need to build roads, hotels and other infrastructure in parks.
  • All travel will emit no pollution in the park, and completely silent gliding is also possible.

Flying cars (we need a better term) mean almost everywhere is reachable and certainly every vista is attainable. Today so many of the great scenic places can only be reached through extreme hiking, and most are in the air and can only be reached by flying. A few of the most special places, like the rim of the Grand Canyon, are easily reached because we've installed roads, bridges, parking lots and hotels, and as a result they are very crowded.

Today's prototypes are still noisy, though much less so than helicopters. People are working to get them more and more quiet. In addition, there are gliders, especially small personal ones, which are very close to completely silent.

Those in favour of conservation don't want roads or lots of visitors. Only the dedicated may visit with a lot of effort. This does conserve spaces well for the future, but deprives the people of the present, and it's a little elitist as well. Some parks and park systems will probably forbid this, certainly at first.

In Europe, the entire continent was populated and owned long before the idea of national parks came about. As such, their spaces tend to have a lot more recreation and people living in the parks than is found in the USA or Canada. At the same time, there is no doubt that more people get to enjoy the beauty of nature in a park like Banff, which has towns and hotels in it, than the more remote parks.

One immediate positive for flying cars is it will no longer be necessary to build roads into parks for people to enjoy them. Roads and parking lots and cars are one of the most destructive things that visitors "bring." All electric, the flying vehicles will emit no pollution inside the wilderness.

If you wish to build a park that is equivalent to one with roads, you can limit where the flying cars can go to the same places the roads would have gone. They will be fairly quiet when not landing, so outside of that landing/takeoff zone, they would not disrupt the peace of the park, other than through the people they enable access for. (There are also a few tricks which could allow nearly silent landing and take-off but that's for the future.)

With these vehicles, it might even be argued that there is no need for hotels in the park. Visitors could depart each night if that is the desired conservation plan. Or there could only be campsites if that is what is desired. Aside from some food services and toilet facilities, there need be no infrastructure. Power can be solar and communications wireless.

The only impact of the people would be the wear they put on trails, their sewage and their litter. In addition, the need for trails becomes open for debate. Some people love trails for the hiking experience, others use them just as a means to get to interesting destinations. For the latter group, flying can be an option at a modest cost in noise at the drop-off point.

The issue will come because many people will want to be able to fly many more places in the park. They'll want to fly to great vistas, to wonderful campsites, to the "good parts" of the great trails, and just to see things from the air you can't see from the ground. That means some noise, and it also means a lot more people and the load they put on the land, because the easier it is to get somewhere, the more who will come. Of course, landing sites will not be put along the nice hiking trails or directly next to the areas in which people seek peaceful enjoyment. But there will still be less peace, at least in the popular places, because they are popular.

There will also be the issue of crowded skies. Even though you might not hear them, you would not look up into a empty blue sky and feel yourself out in a wild and isolated space. The sky will be forever occupied in this world. Not by much, but not by nothing, either. Yet while we can all appreciate the desire for the isolation of the wilderness, this is a selfish desire in a populated world.

Fortunately there will be truly isolated spaces. The sky of Yosemite or Yellowstone might be full, but there will be many places in which isolation can be found. Just not the ones that make it to lists of "most scenic." Unless there are efforts to push out or excluded the recently enabled masses. That might be possible for ordinary tourists, but it will be much harder to do to those with mobility issues, and by that I include most senior citizens. Even at my age of 58, I know there are many places I will never be able to hike with my current body. Are they to be barred to people like me who could fly there?

Silent flight

For visitors just wanting to see things from the air -- and for most of the spectacular views on hiking trails there are even better ones in the air -- there is a silent option. Most designs of vehicles have fixed wings combined with rotors and they can glide. We should see autonomous vehicles that can gain altitude some place nobody will hear them, and then offer a silent but safe gliding tour. In the event of problems, they could activate their motors, but that noise should be rare. This could even apply to very slow and silent vehicles like parasails or hang gliders -- flown by computers and with rarely used rotors to get them out of any unexpected situation. They mostly would not fly if weather conditions did not permit it. Such vehicles will become cheap and plentiful, and may be the most common way for a tourist to see anything that is visually impressive.

We will also see some tourism eliminated through the creation of full-eye resolution VR which is hard to tell from the real view. Offered the chance to simulate the over-flight with a video captured on the best day, in a drone that flew in temporarily closed skies or cameras in temporarily closed viewpoints, some tourists may elect to do only this.

Skiing

This will also effect skiing. Already many people like heli-skiing but it's very expensive and very loud. Sometimes ski hills are found in parks, but they are more often private land, since parks don't permit clearcutting of trails.

Roads vs VTOL

If you can't see this happening, I think in many places, the best way to think about this is to ask the question, "Roads vs. VTOL?" Imagine that there is the will (as there has been in many places) to have a road to a location. In the future there will be a choice. You can build the road, or you can make a tiny clear and use VTOL aircraft to take people near the location.

The road will cost millions, massively disrupt the environment, and need parking at the destination. The cars driving the road will continue to disrupt the environment and pollute. The VTOLs will require minimal disruption. In the air you will not hear them. There will be increased noise at the designated landing site. 500 feet from that landing site, the noise will not be an issue.

If you are a conservationist, I think the choice between these two is a non brainer. The problem, for a conservationist is that this is such a no brainer that it would encourage more travel to sites you would never have gotten budget for a road to.

The debate

There will be great debates about this issue. In some places, the whole idea will be forbidden. In many parks, low flying small planes are forbidden (but they are just sightseeing, not landing) and helicopters (which are very loud) as well. Personal photo drones are also banned many places, sometimes due to safety, sometimes annoyance.

The real issue here, said or not, will simply be that it means more people can access the park or remote areas of it. More people means some stress on the land, but also less peace for those who access it today, the hard way.

I doubt the argument to keep the crowds artificially low by banning flight will win the day in all the world's parks. There will be some areas, not the most popular ones, which will put on deliberate limits -- it will give them special appeal for those who want to hike a trail and not encounter anybody on it. One could even imagine parks which allocate time-slots and use GPS tracking to promise that you won't encounter anybody, or more than a few people, and they will all be like you. That experience of empty wilderness will persist.

The question of the noise and its effect on wildlife will also play a role, but if the developers of these vehicles get the noise down to less than cars and trucks (which they plan to) that may change that debate.

The hard question is the inherent selfishness of the arguments from all sides. "Conserve the wilderness by only letting a limited number of people in" is often "only letting people like me in." In the past, when only the fit hiker or climber could reach locations, there was not much need for debate. In the future, that won't be the case. If we wish to limit the people how will the quota be done?

  • Lottery?
  • Time on the waiting list?
  • Payment?
  • Chinese Social credit score?
  • Some system that looks like first-come first-served but is actually a lottery?
  • Pick your park -- you can get into one park but then you are barred from others?
  • Either hike in, or a limited number of disabled/seniors using one of the methods above?

Comments

And if/when this happens, there will be the incidents, e.g., from someone smacking into a tree and leaving a wreck in a rather inaccessible place, to the drivers who just plan poorly and have to touch down with zero power to get back out again. Should the NPS have aerial tow trucks to retrieve/revive the mistakes, and how to cost this out?

I am presuming all flight operations in the park below a certain altitude will be in vehicles operated by the park or its contractors, not your private vehicle. Of course, problems there are still possible and the contractor would have to deal with them, but if the safety is less than exemplary the contractor won't be operating.

I look forward to the day when surface roads are for heavy cargo and bicycles only. When people look at the cost of flying cars, they often forget what we spend on highways, and the fact that the status quo accepts multiple daily fatalities in every rush hour.

All kinds of powered vehicles are prohibited in US designated wilderness areas and have been for many decades. This has been controversial as they don't even allow helicopters to land for emergency medical evacuations. I suspect they aren't going to change the rules for flying electric cars (actually, the current administration might, but I doubt they'll be around by the time this becomes an actual issue).

There are some areas where there are prohibitions on flight and motorized vehicles. There are others where there are just regulations, you need a permit and an approved purpose.

There have never been vehicles like this before, though. Old thinking persists, it's true, but it need not.

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