The Next Step: Cars that Fly
It would look right at home on the set of Blade Runner or the latest Star Wars film, but the Moller M400 Skycar - a versatile, economical, safe, environmentally-responsible Flying Car - is definitely for real. Opening up the next frontier in automotive personal transport, the SkyCar is a VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) vehicle with a cruising speed of 600kmh, a range of more than 1400km, runs on almost any fuel from diesel to natural gas and achieves better fuel efficiency than many sports cars (15mpg or 19 litres per 100km).
Dr Paul Moller has been working for more than 30 years to build his dream vehicle - after developing several technologies for the Skycar which have become commercially viable businesses in their own right, his dream of a viable production VTOL vehicle is now tantalisingly close to reality.
Having already built and flown a two-seater prototype, the Skycar he envisaged as a child is now finished windtunnel testing and is expected to be in full flight-testing by the end of this year. Moller believes it was just a matter of time before the world demanded some kind of flying machine which would replace the automobile and after numerous prototypes, he named his vision the "Volantor," with the model designation M400.
He espouses the benefits of the Skycar as if it were already on the showroom floor - "No traffic, no red lights, no speeding tickets - just quiet direct transportation from point A to point B in a fraction of the time. It offers three dimensional mobility for the same price as two dimensional mobility." In terms of cost Moller sees US$950,000 price tag dropping to around US$60,000 (the cost of a high end sports car today) over the next 15 years.
The four-seater prototype M400 is designed to be easy to fly - with on-board computers and GPS doing most of the work - and small enough to fit in your garage at just over 5 metres long. The required takeoff and landing area is 10 metres in diameter and it be driven on the ground with the landing gear down for short distances.
Once airborne, the M400 can also climb at more than a vertical mile per minute and has a ceiling of 30,000 feet (equivalent to that of a high-performance fixed wing aircraft and double the operating height of helicopters). Two-seater and 6 seater versions of the M400 are also planned adding to the potential range of applications for a VTOL vehicle with such rapid response capabilities including search and rescue operations, police and fire work, emergency medical support, surveillance, or the movement of small military and paramilitary teams of critical personnel - not to mention opening up an era of "as the crow flies", traffic-jam-free personal transport.
Let's compare the M400 Skycar with what's available now, the automobile. Take the most technologically advanced automobile, the Ferrari, Porsche, Maserati, Lamborgini, or the more affordable Acura, Accord, or the like. It seems like all of the manufacturers of these cars are touting the new and greatly improved "aerodynamics" of their cars. Those in the aerospace industry have been dealing with aerodynamics from the start.
In the auto industry they boast of aerodynamics, performance tuned wide track suspensions, electronic ignition and fuel injection systems, computer controllers, and the list goes on. What good does all this "advanced engineering" do for you when the speed limit is around 100kmh and you are stuck on crowded freeways anyway? No matter how you look at it the automobile is only an interim step on our evolutionary path to independence from gravity. That's all it will ever be.
The M400 is the latest incarnation in the long history of the volantor or Skycar project which began in the Sixties with the XM-2 Skycar. Working from a model built two years earlier, Dr. Moller began construction of the XM-2 in his garage in 1964 and by 1965 this aircraft could hover in ground effect. After being re-engined with two-Mercury outboards the XM-2 was demonstrated to the international media in 1966.
The classic flying-saucer shape of the XM-2 and its successors the XM-3 (1966) and the XM-4 (1970) highlights the parallels between the evolving design of the volator and the imaginations of Hollywood film-makers. The XM-3 is notable as one of the most unique configurations - it consisted of a central glass dome for two passengers surrounded by a single ring fan powered by 8 go-kart engines and was also capable of flying in ground effect.
During the Eighties the XM-4 was re-vamped with modified Wankel-type engines and re-named the M200X which has successfully flown over 200 flights since 1989 at altitudes of up to 50 feet.
The volantor design soon evolved into the one-seater M150, the direct predecessor of the M400 Skycar. The M150 has two nacelles (the cylindrical structure that covers the engines and fans giving the Skycar its "Batman" look) rather than four, plus a more streamlined fuselage given the need to accommodate only one person. The nacelles make it safer for those outside the aircraft by eliminating the danger of exposed fans and they also contain deflection vanes that divert the thrust to facilitate vertical takeoff and landing in a manner similar to the famous Harrier Jump Jet.
The eight engines used in the M400 are of Wankel-rotary type, known for their reliability, low emission levels and high power-to-weight ratio since being developed in 1957 by Felix Wankel. Each engine produces 120hp and the small number of moving parts, plus the ability of the Skycar to operate despite the malfunction of one or more engines is also an important safety aspect. The computer controlled flight management, stabilisation and fuel-monitoring systems also enhance safety and in the event of complete failure, two ballistically ejected airframe parachutes are fitted, enabling the vehicle to be guided safely to the ground from height above 150 feet.
Initially a pilots' licence will be required to operate the Skycar, but as the automation systems are developed and proven it is hoped that the training requirements will become less stringent.
Moller is by no means the only person to pursue the long awaited dream of a flying car. Just 14 years after the Wright Brother's history making flight in 1903 Glenn Curtis (who has been dubbed the father of the flying car) designed and built the Autoplane - a three-wing aluminium design similar to a WWI "triplane", but with a car replacing the fuselage, powered by a four-bladed propeller connected to the cars motor. Unfortunately the Autoplane never really got off the ground, but throughout the last century there were numerous attempts to produce a means of personal airborne transport - some were more successful than others with one of the most well knows - Moulton Taylor's Aerocar - nearly making it to the production line in the 70's.
Modern competitors of Moller's Skycar include Urban Aeronautics CityHawk and Turbohawk projects and the SOKOL A400.
Visit Moller's website at www.moller.com to watch the progress of the M400 Skycar's testing via downloadable Quicktime movies.
Eds note - November 15, 2004
Since the publication of this article, and after recent successful tethered hovering flights of the M400 Skycar, including at the at the WIRED NextFest in San Francisco in May, 2004, Moller International is accepting deposits to secure delivery positions this groundbreaking vehicle. A 10% deposit of US$100,000 will put you in the top 100 on the delivery list for the M-400 Skycar, which is expected to be FAA-certified for use by the end of 2005. Over 100 reservations have already been placed and demand is expected to grow as the working model nears production.For full details visit the Skycar site at www.moller.com