Forget jetpacks. Forward-thinking commuters should be asking, "Where's my flying car?"
The manufacturer of a vertical-lifting flying car heading to market within five years (sticker price: $60,000), is offering rides to 15 top-tier contributors to an Indiegogo campaign running Nov. 5 through Jan. 4. The donation? A cool $15,000. (Hint: Christmas is coming up.)
Moller International hopes to raise the final $958,000 of the $1.89 million needed to install new 816-horsepower motors and FAA-required safety elements in the vehicle—dubbed the Skycar—plus extensive ground testing prior to untethered, piloted flight. Of that total, $932,000 has already been pledged by Nitroturbodyne, an FAA-designated engineering firm handling flight testing, former Moller subsidiary Freedom Motors, which built the rotary engines, and CliC Goggles.
Where most public companies (OTC-QB: MLER) might look to corporate sponsorships, increasing stock shares, or venture capital rounds to raise money, Moller International opted for crowdsourcing, which enabled it to raise cash in a faster, publicity-generating manner, without giving away more company control.
"We didn’t want to dilute the stock value by issuing more shares," says president Paul Moller, an inventor, TED speaker, and former professor of aeronautics at University of California, Davis before founding the company in 1983. "Crowdfunding is a way for the average person to make a direct contribution towards a specific project without having to buy stock. This way, we can give really nice gifts and make people part of a team that can help make this happen."
Proceeds from the Indiegogo campaign would be used to prepare the Skycar for a June public unveiling—an official first off-tether flight to an altitude of 2,000 feet, in contrast to previous tethered, unpiloted tests to 75 feet. That debut will feature the Skycar M400, an experimental four-seat model the size of a large SUV, but weighing only 1,200 lbs., thanks to a carbon fiber and Kevlar composite shell. Another six months of testing to meet FAA requirements will follow, before donors get their guest flights. After that, Moller will donate the M400 to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. From there, he’ll focus on a smaller, two-person Skycar M200, the model he would sell to the public.
Meanwhile, a documentary chronicling this journey, Volantor, is in the works from filmmaker Scott Hardie.
"One of the bigger obstacles right now is certification to fly the Skycar," says Ed de Reyes, chief test pilot and FAA certification consultant for the Skycar. "The FAA requires a multi-engine pilot’s license with a Powered Lift specialization to fly either of these vehicles. This is the kind of permit required to fly military craft like the Harrier Jump Jet and V-22 Osprey. The hope is, because of the high level of automation on both vehicles, that we can petition the FAA for a new category of pilot’s license." Users would launch and land the craft manually, but fly it on automatic pilot per pre-programmed route.
Skycar design differs significantly from other personal air vehicles—Airbike and Terrafugia—in that it can vertically lift off and land on a driveway or street, while the others require an airport runway.
Eight ethanol-fueled engines powering eight fans direct thrust for a vertical take-off, then redirect it for horizontal flight. (The M200 has 10 engines and fans.) It’s designed to cruise at 315 mph at 25,000 feet, or 200 mph at sea level, for roughly 750 miles, with a goal of 25 mpg. A top land speed of 30 mph makes short-distance street travel feasible.
"The Skycar would allow you to back out of your garage, drive to Starbucks and pick up your morning coffee, and then, from the parking lot, push a button and fly to work 100 miles away," says Moller.
The Skycar has faced two major technological challenges in its development. The first was building an engine that was small, lightweight, powerful, and responsive enough to lift the vehicle. "A simple assembly of three primary moving parts made it inexpensive enough to put all those engines in a car, and still sell for a reasonable price down the road," says Bruce Calkins, Moller's general manager.
The second was stabilization, accomplished by four redundant computers conducting millions of operations per second. "With such powerful engines, one that’s even slightly off can throw off the balance, so you really do need a computer to coordinate them," says de Reyes, while Moller adds, "If one computer tells a different story than the other three, it’s kicked off the system."
Having it run on ethanol was another important feature. In addition to low emissions, "ethanol works really well in our engines," says Moller. "It cools them as it power them, the parts last longer, and it burns slower than diesel or gas, so if there’s an accident, it’s less of a fire hazard."
Over three decades, Moller International raised $65 million from individual angel investors and shareholders, while Moller has put in several million of his own money earned through real estate holdings, licensed technology, and sales of startups that produced his technological inventions. Those include Supertrapp motorcycle muffler technology, Aerobot UAV engines, and Freedom Motors rotapower engines. Before the Skycar, Moller tested his engineering ideas on a flying saucer hovercraft, Neuera, now for sale.
Along the way, Moller International has endured some hurdles as well, in particular, a 2002 Securities and Exchange Commission suit alleging misrepresented share price and Skycar performance. However, that same year, the SEC granted Moller permission to go public, and Moller reached a settlement for $50,000. Meanwhile, Moller shareholders erected a website to present the company’s side of the SEC issue. Then, in 2009, pummeled by the real estate market crash of 2008, Moller filed for personal bankruptcy. Although he's since pulled out of bankruptcy, Moller International was not financially affected by Moller’s personal assets.
"The core of this company's intellectual property is still years ahead of anybody else in this field," says Calkins. "The Skycar representes the essential elements of our technology. It's a viable form of transportation already. We've demonstrated that it can fly. Now we want to demonstrate that it can fly in a broader range of scenarios."
Down the road, Moller hopes to market the Skycar for military, medical, and commercial delivery systems. Eventually, he'll try for FAA approval for a fully automated vehicle—once it exits your garage, it can be programmed to take off, fly to a destination, choose and maintain wind and altitude levels, and space itself at safe distances from other aircraft.
"Even though he’s an engineer, he operates like an artist," says de Reyes. "He had this vision in his head and he won't rest until it's realized."