It wasn't much by modern aviation standards--just 20 seconds or so of hovering two feet above a parking lot in Sunnyvale, Calif. But entrepreneur Michael Moshier is convinced his first outings with the personal aircraft he designed are the start of something big.
"It's exhilarating beyond description, just the ability to lift off two or three feet in the air," Moshier said Wednesday of his recent initial outings with the SoloTrek XFV (Exo-Skeletor Flying Vehicle), a one-person flying machine he hopes will eventually become a solution for everything from clogged freeways to risky military missions.
The SoloTrek is something of a scaled-down helicopter. The pilot stands in a framework with controllers and two large fan blades that allow the craft to hover and move forward at speeds up to 80 miles an hour.
In 1996, Moshier launched Millennium Jet, a privately held company in Sunnyvale, to develop his idea for a safe, practical and easy-to-control flying machine. After years of design and testing work, he began testing the contraption late last month, achieving lift-off right around the 98th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' historic first flight--an analogy that isn't lost on the inventor.
"Their first flight was...measured in feet and seconds, too," said Moshier, previously a vice president at contract manufacturer EMS.
But there's a big difference between hovering a few feet above his company's parking lot, tethered to ropes to prevent accidental take-off, and having a personal flying machine in everyone's garage.
Moshier says that getting the SoloTrek to the product stage will require a lot of testing and a few more rounds of funding. Early backers include NASA and the Defense Department. Moshier estimates he'll need $8 million to $10 million to continue development over the next few years.
"In the months to come, as we start gaining confidence, we can keep pushing the envelope a little," he said. "We hope in the next 12 months we'll be able to get the control system smoothed out and do untethered flights."
Moshier expects initial customers to include law enforcement agencies and the military, which could find the craft useful for navigating mine-strewn fields, for example. Further down the road, he envisions ordinary folk shortening their commutes by zipping along at treetop level. He anticipates few marketing hassles if he can get the product to that stage.
"Let's face it: It's a gee-whiz kind of machine," he said. "I think anybody breathing looks at this and thinks, 'That would be great to have.' That's really what drives everybody working here."
Moshier said it's too early to speculate on price or availability dates, and he's generally careful to avoid the hyperbole that preceded the arrival of another much heralded transportation paradigm, the Segway scooter.
"We're trying very hard to make sure we don't do that ourselves," Moshier said of the publicity tsunami that engulfed Segway inventor Dean Kamen. "It's very easy to overhype this."
Moshier said he was inspired by the RocketBelt, a 1960s attempt at a personal jet pack that was manufactured just a few miles from where he grew up in the Detroit area.
"It was a really exciting thing to see, but the problem was that it ran out of fuel in about 20 seconds," he said.
Moshier said he's drawn lessons from the RocketBelt and numerous potential successors.
"There are literally dozens of flying contraptions that have been built and tested over the last few decades, but you don't see them flying," Moshier said. "They're noisy, they're inefficient, they're dangerous, they use exotic fuels. We tried very hard to look at all the other attempts to achieve a practical vehicle."