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A car to fly

When stuck in a traffic gridlock, you may want to toss a silent prayer that Paul Moller's dream comes true. For more than 40 years, the aerospace engineer, who once taught at the University of California, Davis, has been chasing what some view as a quixotic fantasy, while others regard as a technology marvel-in-the-making: a commercially viable, four-passenger flying car.

Moller is now waiting for a five-acre artificial lake with a soft bottom under construction at a site called The Milk Farm near Dixon, California, a short drive from Davis. There, early next year, he hopes to demonstrate the first free flight of the new transportation alternative he wants to deliver to the world ' a personal flying vehicle powered by multiple engines, controlled by computers, something that guzzles gasoline but may also be coaxed to fly on alcohol. The M400 Skycar is being projected as a low-cost vehicle that combines the high speed of aircraft with the vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities of helicopters.

Its best performance so far has been a two-minute flight during which it climbed up to 40 feet, but protected by a safety tether from the top. Moller International, the company developing the Skycar, says a model certified by the US Federal Aviation Authority is four years away and has put an initial price-tag of $1,000,000, which can drop to $500,000 if 1,000 units are picked up by the market each year.

An entry channel for the Skycar into India has already been established. New Delhi-based Anchit Consulting Group, a matchmaker between Western and Indian technology companies, has signed an agreement with the Moller International. This will allow Anchit ' when the time comes ' to sell the Skycar in India. 'If it works out, we'll be remembered as the people who brought a car that flies into the country,' says Suniti Varma, chief executive of Anchit, a flying enthusiast himself.

The Moller International says the Skycar will fly at a speed of about 560 kilometres an hour, travel up to 1,400 kilometres, and carry a payload of 596 kilograms. And it can be configured to travel, albeit with some restrictions, on a wide city road and fit into a standard residential car garage. 'The Skycar will be to transportation what cellphones were to communication,' predicts Moller.

Although there is still uncertainty about how close the Skycar is to commercial viability, Moller claims that all technical issues have been resolved. 'The biggest challenge now is to raise capital to put the Skycar into mass production after certification by aviation authorities,' Moller says in an e-mail interview.

However, some aerospace engineers still have questions about safety, operations, economics and noise. The Moller International has also been embroiled in a financial controversy. The US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) two years ago alleged that Moller had used 'false and misleading information' in campaigns to solicit investor interest and to sell stock. Moller denies the allegations and says that the company paid a fine 'just to get the SEC off our back'.

Ground bound: Will wheels one day be replaced by wings'

Childhood dream

Growing up on a chicken farm in Canada's British Columbia, Moller displayed a passion for flying machines early in life. When he was 11, he built a giant wheel to simulate flight. The town's children enjoyed the rides, but Moller wasn't satisfied.

At age 15, he designed a helicopter, but realised that a helicopter would be impractical as a personal vehicle because it was a complex machine and difficult to fly. The idea of designing a flying car emerged, says Moller, from his experience of watching hummingbirds, a species of birds that can fly right, left, up, down and even backwards.

After Moller earned a doctorate in aerospace engineering in Canada, he moved to the University of California, Davis, where he helped set up an aerospace engineering programme in the early-1960s. He designed his first flying car XM2 in his garage in 1962, following that up with two other XM versions, all of them shaped like the flying saucers in science fiction.

He set up the Moller International in 1983 to integrate an array of technologies for the car ' rotary engines, the airframe, fans, electronics and software. The project has drained $200 million, partly from personal funds, partly from sales of other products from the Moller International and from investors. In 1989, Moller demonstrated the two-passenger flying car, the M200 which has successfully flown over 200 times.

He picked the so-called 'rotary engines' to power his flying cars. These engines provide a high power-to-weight ratio ' a measure of the performance ' at a reasonable cost and are small in size compared to the power output. The four-seater Skycar has four engine enclosures, each with two computer-controlled thrust-generating rotary engines.

Moveable structures mounted behind the engines in a special configuration deflect the thrust to control the direction of flight, facilitating vertical and horizontal movements as well as turns. Moller says safety is taken care of through high levels of redundancy and automation.

The Skycar has four independent computers for flight management, stability and control. The vehicle, claims Moller, can take off and land vertically with one engine out and can maintain flight with several engines out. In the event that several engines fail, two parachutes will allow safe descent of the vehicle.

With computers controlling the stability of the Skycar while it is hovering or transiting from one movement to another, the only thing the pilot needs to do is to control the speed, the rate of climb and the altitude. If for some reason, the engines cannot supply enough power to land vertically, the shape of the Skycar will allow the pilot to glide towards a nearby airport for what Moller calls a 'transitional landing'.

Aerospace engineers have reacted to the claims with notes of caution. 'It's a significant first step, but there's lots more to be done,' says Dr John Zuk, chief of the advanced tilt rotors technology division at the NASA Ames Centre. According to him, the design of the Skycar has involved some clever hardware and software engineering to achieve the redundancies and the control, but the issues such as safety, economics and air traffic management still need to be addressed.

Viability doubtful

Aerospace experts say it is still too early to predict the viability of a personal VTOL car. 'I have no doubt that it is technically possible to build a four-passenger car that can take off and land vertically and fly horizontally,' says Dr Hemendra Arya, an assistant professor at the department of aerospace engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. The key issue, he adds, is the cost of operating the vehicle. 'A flying car may guzzle up so much fuel and so fast that it may become a mere technology demonstrator or, at best, a toy for a billionnaire or two,' comments Arya. 'It's not something that you or I could hope to fly.'

Both Zuk and Arya say that wings should ideally provide the lift to an aircraft, but the relatively small surface area of the wings of the Skycar will mean that most of the lift will be generated through engine thrust. 'For economics of operations, you'll want to get wing lift and not thrust lift, otherwise you'll be burning extra fuel,' says Arya.

Who'll be able to fly the Skycar' Moller says that with existing avionics technology, a 'reasonably well-trained' pilot will be able to start moving in and out of urban centres safely. But as technology advances the Skycar will be designed to have fully automated flight systems, including an autopilot.

Existing laws require that only a licensed pilot can fly the Skycar, which is technically classified as a powered-lift aircraft. So those wishing to line up to purchase the Skycar ' if and when it hits the market ' will first need to head for flying schools to pick up a pilot's licence.

Arya also cautions that a proposal for a flying car may cause some consternation among the civil aviation authorities in India. Commercial aircraft today fly through air corridors. Any private flying vehicle will also have to adhere to restrictions on flight paths imposed by air-traffic controllers. In addition to piloting the vehicle, pilots will also need to be in constant two-way communication with air-traffic control centres.

Moller says he isn't looking merely at the consumer market. He thinks that the Skycar will first find applications in the military domain. Large helicopters have a single advantage over the Skycar ' the ability to carry a single large payload beyond the capabilities of the Skycar. But this advantage vanishes for a payload if it is distributed into smaller packages that can be transported by Skycar.

Moller predicts that the Skycar can also find uses in air ambulance, special air charter, and high-value air cargo services. For instance, it can emerge as an alternative to the helicopters that ferry people to offshore oil platforms. The current design of the Skycar makes it two-to-three times faster and gives it nearly twice the range of most light helicopters used for such services today. Its range of over 1,400 kilometres will make it a lot more attractive than short-range helicopters which need to stop for refuelling.

Stockholders upbeat

While the current focus is on the four-seater M400, the Moller International also envisages a six-seater M600 at a cost of about $ 750,000 when it goes into production. While US manufacturers sell about 500 helicopters and about 3,000 private aircraft each year, Moller believes that the US may not be the biggest market opportunity for the Skycar. He's looking forward to a boom in air transport in Asia, particularly in western China, a trend in which he believes the Skycar will fit in as a vehicle to support the rapid transport of small numbers of people and goods.

While the debate on the economic viability of the Skycar may continue in aerospace engineering circles, there are many who believe in what Moller is pursuing. The litigation that the SEC had initiated against the Moller International in February 2003 triggered a protest from stockholders who charged the SEC with making false and unsubstantiated claims against the company.

In its February 2003 litigation against the Moller International, the SEC had alleged that 'the Skycar was and is still an early developmental stage prototype that has no meaningful flight testing, proof of aeronautical feasibility, or proven commercial viability.' But a stockholder responded to the litigation with a statement expressing satisfaction with the way that the company was managed. 'We applaud the company's remarkable success in demonstrating the solution to future transportation and are happy to be part of it,' the statement said.

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