The Ph.D. candidate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Aeronautics and Astronautics program received the prestigious award for a portfolio of novel inventions, including a new Personal Air Vehicle; a desktop-sized fusion reactor; and a lower-cost rocket engine.
"Carl joins a long line of independent inventors who are passionate about finding innovative ways to address society's fundamental problems," said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which sponsors the award. "He is not afraid to tackle the challenges many inventors before him have abandoned. Carl's ability to look at big problems in creative ways and come up with practical solutions makes him just the type of person we look to honor with the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize."
Flight On Demand
Dietrich's most recent invention is a Personal Air Vehicle concept he calls Transition. It is a flying car that relies on the nation's thousands of underutilized public-access airports to provide a practical transportation alternative to travelers whose trips range between 100 and 500 miles.
"If you were taking a trip between 100 and 500 miles right now, chances are you'd probably drive unless you were going between two airport hubs," Dietrich said. "Driving is fine, but it can take you half a day to reach your destination, and you are subject to unpredictable traffic. Commercial airlines are effective for trips over 500 miles, but...they don't really attack the short-hop market very well. Personal Air Vehicles open up a lot of possibilities in freedom to get around. They offer convenience and flexibility to fit the traveler's schedule."
Dietrich's Transition can be driven on any surface road and requires only a sport pilot's license to fly. The SUV-sized vehicle can be stored in most home garages and has folding wings that enable it to operate both on the ground and in the air. It can carry two people with their bags up to 500 miles on a single tank of premium unleaded gasoline.
The Transition also offers modern safety features including an electronic center of gravity calculator (important for weight distribution in flying mode), GPS navigation unit, front and rear crumple zones, airbags, and patent-pending deformable aerodynamic bumpers. Since the driver's visibility is impaired when the wings are folded up, a tiny camera system embedded in the vertical tails provides direct views of blind spots.
Timely Take Off
Dietrich admits a flying car is not a novel idea, but he points to a confluence of circumstances that make the timing right for it to finally take off. "Since 9/11, for the first time, average door-to-door travel speed has really dropped substantially due to a combination of increased security measures at airports and more road traffic," he noted.
He also calls Federal Aviation Administration regulations on light sport aircraft that went into effect in 2004 "a huge opportunity in general aviation." The new regulations reduced the training-hour requirements for people seeking light-sport pilot licenses, and they reduced the amount of paperwork necessary to bring a certified aircraft to market.
Dietrich and four MIT colleagues have recently launched a start-up company called Terrafugia to further develop the Transition and eventually bring it to market at a price that is accessible to the traveling and business public.
"With the money from the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, I think we will be able to build a full-scale mock-up of the vehicle to take to the Experimental Aircraft Association's AirVenture convention in Oshkosh (Wis.)," Dietrich said. "Our goal is to make a really solid impression and start taking refundable orders."
Beyond Freeways and Flight Plans
Dietrich has patents pending for the Transition's overall configuration, deformable aerodynamic bumpers, embedded lights and license plate holder, and an RFID system for rapid access to local airports. But his invention portfolio touches other fields, as well.
Dietrich co-founded the MIT Rocket Team and holds a patent for his Centrifugal Direct Injection Engine (CDIE), a low-cost, high-performance rocket propulsion engine. It operates without a turbopump pressurization system, which greatly reduces its complexity and cost.
For his doctoral work, Dietrich is researching inertial electrostatic confinement fusion for spacecraft power and propulsion. This research grew out of an efficiency improvement he patented for a desktop-sized Penning Fusion Reactor.
A Child's Imagination Takes Off
"In my 30 years as a teacher (at MIT), I cannot recall a clearer exponent of the Edison mindset," said MIT Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Manuel Martinez-Sanchez, one of Dietrich's recommenders for the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. "Carl is routinely cycling back and forth between what is known and what is possible."
Dietrich traces his passion for invention and design back to the dining room table of his family's Sausalito, Calif. home where he watched his father build model planes. He remembers one model in particular, a Red Baron tri-plane that later hung from his bedroom ceiling and inspired his desire to fly.
When he was eight years old, Dietrich began saving money to take flight lessons and earn his pilot's license, which he did when he turned 17. In high school, he further developed his interest in aerospace engineering. During his junior year, he designed a remote-controlled airplane; his senior project was a full-scale hydrogen-powered airplane.
These days, Dietrich finds inspiration in large-scale challenges that push the limits of his abilities and imagination. "The things I get inspired by now tend to be fundamental problems, like increasing personal mobility and finding better energy sources than hydrocarbon fuels," he said. "These kinds of grand-scale things I try to adopt as my own personal goals. There are lots of smart people with lots of resources working on these problems, certainly. Still, I think there is a role that can be played by us independent inventor types who are trying to think up other unique ways of working on them. It never hurts to have a couple more people thinking about big problems," he said.
ABOUT THE $30,000 LEMELSON-MIT STUDENT PRIZE
The $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is awarded annually to an MIT senior or graduate student who has created or improved a product or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system, or demonstrated remarkable inventiveness in other ways. A distinguished panel of MIT alumni and associates including scientists, technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs chooses the winner.
ABOUT THE LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM
The Lemelson-MIT Program aims to enable and inspire young people to pursue creative lives and careers. It particularly encourages young people to engage in invention and to pursue sustainable new solutions to real world problems. It accomplishes this mission through outreach activities and annual awards, including the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the largest single award in the United States for invention.
Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the world's most prolific inventors, and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994. It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation, a private philanthropy that celebrates and supports inventors and entrepreneurs in order to strengthen social and economic life. More information is online at http://web.mit.edu/invent.