So where’s your flying car? Ask Paul Moller. The intrepid entrepreneur has spent the last 40 years perfecting designs for what he calls a powered lift aircraft. The latest prototype, the M400 Skycar, can fit into a suburban garage, take off and land like a helicopter, and fly at speeds of 380 miles per hour.
The physics of flight have been known for more than a century. But there’s a big difference between putting a machine in the air and getting a flying machine into showrooms. Wi th the Skyc a r, Moller believes the two most important pieces of the puzzle are finally in place. He has (he hopes) found the right engine and the right computer system.
Engines: The Skycar uses four small encased helicopter blades for lift and propulsion. Each blade is powered by its own separate motor. Another set of motors swivel the propellers from the vertical lift to the forward flight position. This elaborate system bypasses the need for a transmission, thus making the Skycar less dangerous than a conventional helicopter, says Moller. But running all those motors requires a lot of juice.
“For the engine, the most critical element is power,” he says. “Once you reduce the diameter of the propulsion system [shrink the size of the propeller], you go from a helicopter to a fan system. So you’re moving less air, and the less air you move, the more power it takes to generate a certain kind of thrust. If I took a helicopter and made it one-half the diameter, I would have to immediately add 60% more power. I halve the diameter again, I have to add 60% more power, again. The M400 Skycar has over 1000 horsepower.”
That thirst for power makes personal flight an expensive means of transportation, especially in the era of peak oil. Moller says he may eventually experiment with hybrid engines, provided he can find supercapacitors that perform well enough for his design. But for the moment, he likes the engine system he’s got. It’s cost him $35 million and taken him 40 years to build.
Computerized Navigation: Since the Skycar is intended for a market of nonprofessional pilots, it would rely heavily on computerized navigation. That may sound convenient, but if you’ve ever gotten lost following the global positioning system in your car, or become frustrated trying to program your favorite stations into your stereo while driving, you know that humans, computers, and driving don’t always mix. Imagine trying to program your car while flying above the ground at 380 miles an hour. Moller ‘s solution: A system that frees the pilot from having to make decisions. He envisions the act of flying the Skycar less like driving a motor vehicle and more like a straightforward computer interface that happens to be occurring in the air, at high speed.
Global positioning system capability would be standard on the M400 model. The machine would also come with an inertial coordinate system – a math-based navigation computer program that locates the car in space by calculating acceleration and the physical forces acting upon the vehicle. “The inertial coordinate system would be the escape system,” Moller explains. “Say a big thunderstorm happened and you weren’t able to access GPS. The inertial system would take over and get you back on the ground.”
The Skycar would also make use of the virtual “highway in the sky,” currently under development by NASA. The highway sends allterrain, all-weather navigation data via digital radio signal to general aviation pilots or, in the case of the M400, the Skycar’s computer.
So where can you get yours? Moller is taking deposits online (minimum $10,000), but he hasn’t set a firm delivery date. His biggest obstacle today is that bureaucratic red tape is impeding his ability to attract capital.
“Who’s going to join you in a program like this when the [U.S.] government can’t tell you when it’s going to be cooperating, when they can give you changes in FAA [guidelines] to allow certain things?” He speculates that getting the vehicle certified may cost upwards of $100 million. “You’re trying to change the transportation paradigm,” he says.
Given the difficulties he’s faced in the United States (he’s already been sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for making false claims to potential investors), it’s not surprising that Moller’s looking abroad for customers and money. He’s already set up an office in South Korea and has received a warm reception in Dubai. “People in Dubai are building these Palm Islands, which I’m sure you’re well aware of. … They say, ‘We have the problem of getting around on the islands,’ so they’re open to the idea, more so than in America.”
The Moller Skycar takes off vertically like a helicopter and can travel at speeds of up to 380 miles per hour.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, September-October 2008.