On a freezing January morning in a field south of Seattle in the United States, a 3-meter black disc flies away.
This is the first flight of a full-scale Zeva Aero Zero, a flying machine that its inventors believe will soon change the landscape of personal transportation.
Powered by electric motors, similar to those used in drones, it only flew for a short time before making a perfect landing.
“It’s an octocopter; it has eight motors, four on the upper plane, four on the lower plane. Each is optimized for its position,” said Stephen Tibbitts, CEO of Zeva Aero.
A finalist in the Boeing-sponsored GoFly award that offers a $1 million (€909,000) prize, Zeva Aero’s Zero is an electric vertical take-off and landing, or eVTOL, craft.
Its inventor’s vision calls for a flight engine capable of taking off vertically from a “skyport” on the side of a building, or the ground, before switching to a forward flight mode.
“The pilot comes up upright, and his head goes up there and he has a really nice view up ahead. He takes off vertically and then flies forward at 160 miles per hour, basically in Superman mode,” continued Tibbitts.
Designed to accommodate a single person in its prototype model, the pilot stands in the cockpit before takeoff, looking through a plexiglass window.
The time has come for an eVTOL like this
After showing that the aircraft can take off, the next phase of testing will see the Zeva Zero attempt to transition to forward flight over a full test flight range.
Tibbitts says the time is right for such an aircraft.
“All of these technologies, the lightweight materials, the battery capacity, the efficient motors, all come together at the same time. The control systems, the semiconductors needed to make all the parts, everything is converging “, did he declare.
Like many change ideas, the Zeva Zero had small beginnings, with its flight capability demonstrated by an 1/8th scale model that tested its ability to make the vertical transition to forward flight. .
The challenge is to leave the model on the shelf and have the full-scale Zero do the same. If they are successful, Tibbits sees a wide variety of uses for the plane.
“The clients we’re seeing right now are first responders, doctors who need to get to the scene of an accident, to treat trauma victims as soon as possible,” he explained.
“Of course the DoD [the US Department of Defense] expressed interest in replenishment, ship to shore, types of hot mining applications”.
Tibbitts’ vehicle has also caught the eye of wealthy customers who want to fly from their lakeside homes to town or hop between yachts.
With a price likely around $250,000 (€227,000), it’s likely to be a while before the Zero lands in front of the average home.
The task of steering the project to a wider market falls to Gurbir Singh, the company’s Chief Technology Officer. The sky, in his eyes, is the limit, with companies such as Tesla proving that battery technology is ready to power the transportation sector.
“We’re following the same curve, but we recognize that this same battery technology is going to allow us to power aircraft that make this type of craft very viable in the future,” Singh said.
For now, it’s one step at a time, as engineers prepare the Zero for more tethered weight testing.
Human-piloted testing is still a long way off, with strict Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards to be met along the way, but Tibbitts has no doubts about the Zero’s future.
“We will make this aircraft commercially available probably within two years, but it will be unrestricted, it will be an experimental class and you will need to have a pilot’s license,” he said.
“Around 2026, we hope to have built-in autonomy so anyone has the ability to drive it because it will be computer controlled.”
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