21st Century : Technology : Moller M400 Skycar
Imagine this: your daily trip to the office at 350mph with no traffic jams, no roadworks and a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet. Sounds like Science Fiction? Well, not for much longer, thanks to one mans' vision.
Moller International was founded in 1983 by Dr Paul Moller, a Canadian-born US engineer, to design, develop, manufacture and market personal vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOL). His colleagues said it couldn't be done, but like many geniuses, Dr Moller worked tirelessly towards his dream: a personal flying car that could take off from any back garden of street and be as easy to fly as a car is to drive, if not easier.
The M400 is by no means Moller's first project; thirty years ago he designed a flying saucerlike VTOL volantor. He managed to make it hover off the ground but it was difficult to manoever and was more an attraction to tabloid newspapers than anything else. Undeterred by this, Moller continued to work on his plans for a personal flying vehicle while serving as a professor at the University of California, using the fortune he made in the 1970s by inventing a revolutionary type of motorcycle muffler.
In 1989, Moller produced the Skycar's predecessor, the M200x. Looking like a flying saucer, the pilot sat in the middle of the craft which was powered by six propellers providing lift. Moller has flown the M200 over 150 times at altitudes up to 50 feet. However, as the propellers can only point downwards, progress is slow and therefore not terribly practical for long distance travel. However, the knowledge gained from this project was put to good use for the M400.
The M400 itself certainley looks like something from a Sci-Fi movie, a mixture of fins and pods that would not have looked out of place in 'The Fifth Element' or 'Bladerunner'. The power for the vehicle comes from eight small 120hp Rotapower engines, a derivative of the Wankel engine designed in 1957 by Felix Wankel and best known for its use in the Mazda RX7. Dr Moller purchased the rights to the Wankel engine and quickly formed Freedom Motors to develop the Wankel engine for use in the Skycar. The Rotapower engines will allow the M400 Skycar to fly at 350 mph and get fifteen miles to the gallon and a 900 mile range, although future projections show that it could achieve forty mpg for a four-seater and eighty mpg for a one-seater. One of the best things about the lightweight rotary engine is that it causes far less pollution than a regular engine.
The Skycar will be able to take off and land vertically. Using a principle similar to that of the Harrier jump jet, the Moller M400 incorporates a patented thrust deflection vane system that redirects thrust, enabling it to hover or to take off and land vertically from almost any surface. Initial test cars will need trained pilots, but Moller's vision is of automated skyways where the navigational computers do all the work, and Moller's design calls for three computers to assure redundancy. However, some level of driver/pilot training will still be necessary.
Removing the hazard of untrained drivers makes the Skycar more feasible, but there are still many concerns about safety. With eight engines, if one or two fail the volantor will still stay aloft, and if a computer goes, there are still two more to back it up. There will even be a parachute for landing when systems fail, but what happens when a Skycar comes down in a crowded city street?
As far as the cost of ownership goes, Moller says that initially the M400 Skycar will sell for a price comparable to that of a four-passenger high performance helicopter or airplane, approximately $500,000. As the volume of production increases substantially, its price can approach that of a quality automobile ($60,000-$80,000).
"I see this as a cheap civilian product, and if it isn't then it would be a failure as far as I'm concerned." says Moller.
Also, with very few moving parts the M400's rotapower engines require little maintenance, and the Rotapower engine has the unique capability of burning a variety of fuels - thus making it affordable to operate regardless of which natural resources are readily available in your area.
Will the Skycar become a familiar sight in our skies? The Federal Aviation Authority seems to think this may be a possibility and is already monitoring the progress of the M400 Skycar and, "contemplating an airborne future, with helicopters, unmanned computer planes and inventions such as the Skycar," reports The London Independent.
Moller envisions thirty-five-foot diameter "vertiports" atop city high-rises where volantors will be able to land and take off. As far as overcrowding of the airways go, according to Moller, even if there were the same number of Skycars in the sky tomorrow as there are cars on the roads today, each Skycar in the sky would be over a mile away (in all directions) from any other Skycar in the sky.!
Your own personal Skycar may seem like "pie in the sky" at the moment, but Dr Moller's work and the technology now available make it seem like an increasingly viable option, so watch the skies!