Airplanes, Intelligent Houses, and Kit Building

Steven J. Searle
Web Master, TRON Web

I have always had a strong interest in aviation. When I was very young, I read a lot of books about aircraft, and I used to enjoy drawing pictures of them. When I got older, I actually logged several hours of flight time in a Cessna 150, which is a light training plane. But I gave up flying because I found out that unless you become a commercial pilot, it is little more than a very expensive pastime. And when I was logging that flight time--in the early 1970s--I had to stash away all the money I could to pay for my college and graduate school expenses.

Lately, however, I've been bitten by the aviation bug again. So I have been using my Internet connection to check up on the world of general aviation, which includes light aircraft and sport flying. What I discovered is that Cessna and Piper aircraft haven't changed much in the last 30 years, and the engines they use have been around for about 50 or 60 years! In fact, the main changes that have taken place seem to be limited to two areas--avionics and price. Cessnas and Pipers can now be equipped with new types digital navigation devices, such as Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers and moving map displays. That puts them ahead of many military aircraft of the early 1970s!

However, the biggest change has been in the area of price. In the early 1970s, an entry-level Cessna or Piper aircraft would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $15,000. Today, an entry-level aircraft from either company will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $150,000. That means that prices have gone up approximately 1,000 percent over the last 30 years. Today, if you are middle class and interested in flying, you can own a Cessna or Piper aircraft only if you purchase it as a member of a group. But what if you do a lot of flying and want your own aircraft?

Enter the kit aircraft manufacturers. For every Cessna or Piper aircraft that is sold and takes to the air in the U.S. today, there are three or four home-built aircraft that are hand assembled by hobbyists and take to the air. The overwhelming majority of these home-built aircraft are designed by professional aircraft designers and "built in garages" by their owners using factory made parts supplied in the form of "kits." Why are these kits selling so well? Price, of course, is the main reason. For example, for $25,000 to $30,000 and several hundred hours of your time, you can put together a Zenith Air Zodiac, which is a very popular two-place aircraft. At the Experimental Aircraft Association annual show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 20 people have actually assembled and flown one of these aircraft within the seven-day period of the show to demonstrate how easy it is to build one!

But there are other reasons as to why kit planes are selling so well. These include such factors as more choices and advanced technology. The spectrum of kit aircraft--to make quite an understatement--is exceedingly broad. It runs from low-speed gyroplanes, helicopters, STOL aircraft, and amphibians to high-speed fighter replicas, cross country touring planes, business jets, and even jet trainers! Many of the high-speed models are based on incredibly strong space age plastics that provide very smooth surfaces for high-speed, long-range cruising. The most popular models in this "composite category" seem to be the Stoddard-Hamilton GlasAir III and the Lancair IV, which cost around $150,000 to complete in standard form. Both of these aircraft are designed to cruise at over 300 mph using a 350 hp engine; and when more powerful engines are utilized, they can fly wingtip to wingtip with the fastest piston engine fighters of Word War II.

And so why have I, a computer writer who should be writing about TRON, chosen to expound on this non-TRON topic? Because this do-it-yourself, home-built aircraft culture that has been nurtured in the U.S.--in many cases by renegade engineers from large aircraft companies who grew tired of what they were doing--is exactly what the TRON Project needs to get TRON Intelligent House technology out of the research laboratory and into homes. Large companies look at TRON Intelligent House technology as a way of adding value to, and hence reaping larger profits from, building projects. But just as people interested in recreational flying in the U.S. are not going to sacrifice their lifestyles for an airplane, people interested in TRON Intelligent House technology are not going to pay 10 times as much for a new house to enjoy life in computerized living space. Thus the only way to increase the number of TRON Intelligent Houses from zero at present to tens of thousands in the future is to make the technology affordable by selling it in the form of an easy-to-install kit.

The aircraft kits I mentioned above are sold in two forms: (1) major sections (i.e., you buy the tail assembly, fuselage, wings, etc., separately as you obtain the money to purchase them), or (2) complete kits (the entire aircraft minus the engine and flight instruments, or sometimes even including the engine and flight instruments). America being the kind of consumptionist society it is, it should come as no surprise that specialist financial firms have come into being to help fund the purchase of these kits! Accordingly, any member of the middle class in the U.S. who is interested in owning his/her own aircraft can do so if he/she is willing to take the time to build it. Ah, but isn't a little difficult to build an airplane for people who do not have much of a mechanical background? Well, the kit manufacturers have thought of how to deal with that problem, too. Most of them have prepared video tapes to show how it is done, and some of them even hold workshops and have hotlines to dispense information for people who are in a jam. On top of that, there is the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), which works very closely with kit aircraft manufacturers and the Federal Aviation Administration, where people can turn to for assistance. In fact, builders are encouraged to become members of the EAA chapter in their area before starting a building project. And if that's not enough, there are also specialist consulting firms that will supervise your construction and even provide you with flight training.

So what do I conceive of as a good kit for building an TRON Intelligent House?

First, since the primary goal of a TRON Intelligent House kit would be low-cost popularization of TRON Intelligent House technology, I believe it should be aimed squarely at "interior reform." In other words, the kit builder would turn an existing structure into a TRON Intelligent House using the kit. This would make it possible for the kit builder to create a TRON Intelligent House without purchasing land, registering it, or obtaining a building permit--all of which are time consuming and expensive, particularly in Japan. Second, the kit parts would be designed for quick assembly by amateur builders with little or no construction experience and a bare minimum of tools. A primary design goal should be to make it possible to turn any one room of a house into a TRON Intelligent House room in a day or two days. Third, just as in the case of the aircraft kits mentioned above, it should be possible to buy and install the kit in stages. A TRON Intelligent House kit builder may start out creating an intelligent bedroom for an elderly invalid relative and then move on to other important rooms, such as the kitchen and the bathroom. As long as standards for connectors, software, and the like are followed by kit part manufacturers, there should be no trouble for the kit builder.

Of course, in order for TRON Intelligent House kits to become a reality, we first need some renegade engineers--either Japanese or foreign--to accept the concept and design the basic kit parts. These parts would come in the form of modules and be more like home appliances that could be snapped into place on a frame and linked together with standard connectors. Since these renegade engineers would have to set up new firms to manufacture and market the kits based on those parts, some very forward looking venture capitalists would also be required to make TRON Intelligent House building kits a reality. Venture capital not being a Japanese specialty, another opportunity for foreigners also exists here. But perhaps most importantly, there is a need for people to get together and talk. The people designing the kit parts have to talk with the researchers at the Sakamura Laboratory, and a TRON Intelligent House Kit Builders' Association has to be formed for builder/users. Such an organization would be able to give feedback to the designers and researchers, and it could also train and provide assistance to builders who did not have enough confidence to assemble the kit parts on their own.

The most important thing to remember here is that lots of people, both in Japan and elsewhere, are still highly interested in TRON Intelligent House technology. However, just as in the case of sport aircraft enthusiasts mentioned above, these people are not willing to sacrifice their lifestyles to get their hands on it. Don't believe it? Well, I challenge anyone to do a survey of people of people who know about the TRON Project. Ask them whether they would be willing to assemble a low-cost TRON Intelligent House kit if it could be easily installed, had a reasonable price tag, and training and assistance were available. A lot of people would probably be surprised by the answers that were received. In fact, the surveyors just might discover that there's a huge market there waiting to be tapped!