By Brian Boyko
Editor, Network Performance Daily
Although the NetQoS Network Performance Daily blog is usually very focused on matters relating to – what else – network performance and enterprise IT, sometimes we have the opportunity to conduct an interview which doesn’t directly deal with IT issues, but for lack of a better phrase is “just too cool” to ignore. Because of this, we’re starting a “Just Too Cool” category of this blog to have a place for these stories.
Our first entry into this area is a podcast and transcript, jointly produced with GeeksAreSexy.net, with Dr. Paul Moller of Moller International, one of the inventors of the flying air-car.
The transcript is published below, and the podcast and additional discussion can be found at GeeksAreSexy.net
Videos of the M200X series and Skycar aircars can be found at the end of this article.
If you are having trouble with the above podcast, try using Firefox. (There are some problems with IE.) You can also download the MP3 file directly from this link.
Narration: Good evening. This is Brian Boyko, editor of Network Performance Daily, and welcome to a joint podcast from NetworkPerformanceDaily.com and GeeksAreSexy.net.
It’s been the dream of every future-looking child since the 1900s – a personal, flying car. Now, this may no longer be part of a – forgive the pun – flight of fancy for some, as Moller International has started putting into production a two passenger, vertical-takeoff and landing ground effect vehicle called the M200G Volantor. According to a Moller International press release, they expect to make the Volantor available for purchase in 2008.
The Volantor looks like something out of a old movie theatre science fiction serial, a cross between Klaatu’s flying saucer from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and George Jetson’s air car. It has a top speed of one hundred miles, or one hundred sixty kilometers, per hour, and can travel over one hundred miles with a full tank and a payload of two hundred and fifty pounds, or a hundred and thirteen kilograms.
We had an opportunity to interview Dr. Paul Moller of Moller International, who leads the team that developed the Volantor and work on other, more powerful air-car designs. Here is that interview.
NPD/GAS: Could you tell me just a little bit of background about the M200G?
Dr. Paul Moller: Well the M200, and I’ll speak to the M200 first, because it speaks to that particular configuration and stability system. We had flown that a number of times back, beginning in the late 80′s to the 90′s, but we hadn’t, for a long time, planned on putting that into production as our first product. We were going to produce the M400, which is the much higher speed, carries more people, goes much faster, but it’s a much more expensive piece of equipment. It has many different parts in it, and in retrospect, we realized that one of the problems in getting anything into the market that flies, is that it gets under FAA jurisdiction – the ability of the US government to come in and say, “You have to do this, you have to do that, you can’t fly here, you can’t fly there.” These are all limitations that raise the price of the vehicle and make it hard for the average person to get access to this unique technology.
So we backed up a little bit, and said, “Well, what does the world really want right now that would be useful. What can we give them that’s utilitarian and also recreational,” and we said, “well, obviously, the thing to do is to build a little Jetsons-like vehicle.” We’ve got all the tooling, we’ve done it before, it flies very well, we’ve flown it hundreds of times, but let’s bring it to market initially in what’s called a “Ground Effect” category, which means it doesn’t fly higher than the diameter of the machine, according to the FAA. Which means we’d have a machine that flies around ten feet off the ground. Well, you can do a lot of things ten feet the ground, or ten feet off the water, or ten feet off snow. So this is a market that is attractive for – and of course the price of the vehicle would be an awful lot less than the M400 to start with. So that’s when we made the decision to do that, but the critical element in that decision was having an engine in production, in high volume, so that the cost of the engine did not become a critical component.
We’ve designed an engine for this sky car and we recently were in a position to have that go into volume production sometime this year, if not next year in Romania, and that would give us the power plant for the M200G, the ground effect model. That’s why we went in that direction, and that’s why we’re aiming to bring that product on the market first.
NPD/GAS: So this is essentially, without exaggeration, a flying saucer…
Moller: Well, it doesn’t really look like the flying saucers when you talk about UFOs, but it looks much more like the Jetson machine, which is, I guess a futuristic vision of what we might be able to do in the future, and we’re bringing that future to the present.
NPD/GAS: Have you ever sat at the controls of one of these things, or is it just experimental pilots?
Moller: Well, as a ground effect machine, you don’t need a pilot’s license, you don’t have any – the vehicle itself is electronically stabilized, as all our vehicles are – highly redundant stabilization, meaning that the system can fail, and another system takes over, and that can fail, and another one takes over. We know that’s critical, but it is an electronically stabilized vehicle. So the pilot skill – I’m the test pilot and I have been for the last 30 years, and I wouldn’t consider myself a trained pilot. I certainly would not say that I’m a particularly skilled pilot, but I’ve never had a problem flying it very easily, it’s a very easy machine to fly.
NPD/GAS: About the business itself, of air-cars. It seems to be very – don’t get me wrong, it’s revolutionary, but do you ever have trouble trying to convince people it’s a viable business model?
Moller: Yeah, I think it’s logical that it will, because any time you’re – whether you’re inventing the television set, or the Xerox machine, or anything else, if you study history, you’ll see that – I think probably the best example you can have in history is that the Wright Brothers never really made a penny off the damn airplane. They made some money selling it in Europe, but they never made any money selling it in the United States. So they eventually gave up and sold their company to Curtis, and then it became the Curtis-Wright company, which really was Curtis with Wright’s patents actually, and by that time the patents had expired anyhow.
So, I don’t think that anything that is a major technological breakthrough has ever been easy to fund. And certainly, while I’ve spent, in today’s dollars, close to $200M in real dollars, but $75M – that’s not a large amount of money in the aircraft business, and particularly not in the engine development business, but it’s extremely hard to raise that kind of money, but it’s taken me a long time, and it’s one of the reasons that even though, technologically, we’re able to move forward very quickly, financially it’s always been a struggle because of the lack of support for – as you say – our business plan centered around a breakthrough technology.
NPD/GAS: You mentioned the Jetsons. Were you inspired by anything else in particular in science fiction?
Moller: Well, I wasn’t even – I was working on VTOL aircraft well before “The Jetsons.” Quite frankly, it’s sort of odd in a way because the vehicle that I flew first for the press in 1989, did admittedly look a lot like the Jetsons vehicle, but it was never done with that in mind. It evolved in its own form, and again, it’s not a machine that’s really the machine of the future – the computer car – the future that might supplant one of your automobile cars in your garage. You’re certainly going to continue to have one car. Perhaps a more utilitarian electric vehicle or something, but you’re going to have this kind of vehicle for 50 miles or more, and something else for 50 miles or less. That’s not going to be this vehicle.
This vehicle is a fun, utilitarian vehicle. This may be the kind of thing that a farmer might use for herding cattle – like they do with light helicopters today. It might be something that, if you owned a yacht, you’d have on the yacht, and use it for ship-to-shore. There is an interesting application, I just recently heard from yesterday, we had a contact in Dubai, and they’re building a city of 250,000 on these artificial islands, and they need some kind of vehicle to move between the various islands, and these islands are not very far apart. And again, what better than the M200G? It’s perfect over the water, ten feet, island-to-island. Recreational and utilitarian.
So there are these kinds of applications for it. It’s not the skycar of the future, it’s not the car you’re going to see as a potential candidate against the automobile within the next 10 to 20 years, but it’s an immediate application that has a lot of uses.
NPD/GAS: You see any use for these in defense?
Moller: Well, I think you can imagine that, I mean, one of the problems that you have is on the ground in Iraq, right now, and here’s a vehicle that stays well above the ground. It’s small, it’s compact, it can move fairly fast. We can get it up to speeds in the area of light helicopters – 100mph. I would think that one of these would be in a place like Iraq, to fly this thing around, for logistic reasons, probably unmanned in many cases – there’s no real reason – we’ve flown it many many times unmanned -so you can use it as a manned or unmanned vehicle. If the situation is one where there’s an extraordinary amount of risk, I would say that you’d fly it unmanned, because it’s a very inexpensive machine, so you aren’t investing a large amount of money in something that might be destroyed. But, perhaps as an IED-type of detector, something like that, I could see it having a lot of value?
NPD/GAS: Perhaps Medevac?
Moller: Medevac, we have a great version of the sky-car, it’s a medevac vehicle. We call it the M600, it’s a bit bigger than the M400. On the small vehicle, perhaps going in, but again, I think in a medevac role, if I were faced with that, I’d probably want something more like a Skycar which can go in – if it had to – close to 400mph and get back out again. Maybe a little bit different role. This is not designed particularly as a medevac vehicle. I could see it in an emergency being used like that.
NPD/GAS: Have you done crash tests?
Moller: Well, we haven’t crashed it. That would have been a test, certainly. It’s a very durable machine, we’ve made hard landings and things like that, we’ve never had any damage to it with anything that we’ve done. The vehicle itself is extremely durable in a sense. It’s made of two composite pieces; the structure of the skin is like a beetle. It’s called the monocaulk kind of construction, it’s the strongest construction in the world for its weight, and you have like, two halves of a hamburger – a top half and a bottom half that fold together, and that’s your airframe, and you climb in the center of it.
So I can’t think of anything that would be a mode of failure in this vehicle, simply because it has that build and strength, and it would be very resistant to damage, to weapons for example, because the typical aircraft has things called the spar. I don’t know how familiar you are with aeronautical technology, but you have components, for example, if that spar, if that center piece that goes through the wing for example, if that took a bullet, the wing would– and it wouldn’t take much of a bullet, and the wing would break off. We don’t have anything like that in this vehicle. We have multiple engines, multiple computers, and nothing that – you could blow holes all over the place in this thing, and it would have very little effect on the structural integrity on this vehicle.
NPD/GAS: I believe I heard that 250lb is the max payload?
Moller: That’s the recreational/utilitarian vehicle. We have a rescue version of this – for rescuing from, say, a building, a large building where there’s a fire or something like that, where this can go up to the window and take someone off of it, and that’s something you can do with this that you can never do with a helicopter, obviously. That version is able to carry four people, so it’s up close at 800lbs, but it’s got – the way you do that is that you have more powerful engines, but again, when you’re in a rescue mode like that, you don’t care about fuel consumption, and you don’t have to carry a large fuel load, you’re offloading people coming down, you can easily refuel while you’re offloading people, there’s a lot of things you can do in that mode that make a difference, so yes, you can get to the higher payloads, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the same vehicle that you’d use to go herd cattle, or use on your yacht. It would be especially big – we’d call it a far-fly version – as a rescue vehicle.
NPD/GAS: So going back to the M200G, the smaller version. What fuel does it run on, and what type of mileage does it get?
Moller: The M200G – we use in all of our vehicles right now, we’re using ethanol. And people say, “Well, you’re doing that because it sounds good.” Well, the fact of the matter is, that ethanol is a very nice fuel for a number of reasons. There’s a national interest in using ethanol, but quite frankly, ethanol runs extremely well in the engine that we developed for the Skycar. So we like that. It’s also – when we mix it 30% with water, and you can see a press release we sent out recently, which we’d be happy to share with you, where we did this and we were able to satisfy the super-ultra-low emissions levels for emissions in California. And of course the most – the reasons we did this was not to satisfy the super-ultra-low emissions. (That’s a nice little of propaganda on behalf of the engine.) But we actually did it because of the fire hazard element to that. If you take this mixture, 70% ethanol and 30% water, you can’t really get it to burn outside the engine. It burns in the engine fine, but it won’t burn outside the engine. That’s a pretty nice safety feature when you are dealing with a vehicle that could get into an accident.
NPD/GAS: So what type of mileage does it get again?
Moller: We haven’t actually measured on the M200 – we measured on the M400, and we were getting over – and again, these are calculated based on wind tunnel tests and other data we measure. The 200 is not a particularly efficient aircraft for flight. I would say, like a snowmobile or anything else, I’d be surprised if you get – and I’m just giving you a number right now – off the top of my head, I’d be surprised if you got over 15 miles to the gallon.
NPD/GAS: About the limit on the M200G going into production – because of the limit of ten feet, how is that regulated? Is that something that is just not physically possible to go over?
Moller: Oh, no no. You can go over that. In fact, we would propose to follow this with a 200E version which was the experimental version where people would bolt the two halves together, install the engine stability system and then fly it as an experimental aircraft, which means anyone could fly. You could fly, you just need to have a pilot’s license to do that. And it wouldn’t have to be FAA certified. Clearly it’s a next-stage opportunity for us, but the ten foot height is maintained with not only the electronic controls which feed back into the loop, we have height control anyhow, so it’s just regulated, but we also have a backup system that prevents it going above ten feet. Because once it goes above ten feet you’re violating the FAA airspace. It would be not appropriate to do that without clearance to do that, and we have a system that cuts out – it doesn’t stop the engine, but it does reduce the power of the engine so that it can’t go higher than ten feet. We have double systems, we have a feedback loop into the automatic stability system that keeps it from going above ten feet or whatever height you set it for – it could be five feet, three feet, whatever. And then the other one that kills it if it goes above the legal limit which is ten feet.
NPD/GAS: Theoretically, and I suppose anything’s possible theoretically, but is there any concern that, say a home user might buy the M200G and then hack it, much like people do with iPods nowadays to get them to run on other networks, to surpass that ten foot limit.
Moller: Well, I think that’s something that’s possible, of course. You can hack anything, and you can break the law. We would obviously do everything that’s required with the oversight of the FAA, to ensure that we’ve done whatever we can. If somebody hacks it, they’re not going to kill themselves obviously doing it. They’re just going to be violating the FAA airspace.
If you violate the FAA airspace, then they get on your back, but frankly, I don’t think the FAA gives a damn if you’re flying a few hundred feet off the ground, but if you get into trouble, then you obviously are in serious trouble, because you’ve violated the rules as well.
NPD/GAS: You mention that you have the engine mass produced in Romania?
Moller: That’s our plan. We have a MOU – memorandum of understanding. We have a contract that’s supposed to be in place at the end of September. That is clearly an important element, because if we can’t get this engine in high volume production, we can’t get the costs down, and then we can’t get the whole price of the vehicle down to well under $100,000, and that’s sort of, in our opinion, very important for a large segment for the market. There’s a specialized area of the market that has no problems with a quarter of a million, because clearly they’re buying small rotary helicopters that carry two people at that price. But if you really want to expand the market-we’re not proposing that much. We’re proposing a 1000 vehicle production over the next three and a half years, so we’re not being all that aggressive for a vehicle that we think has much more potential.
NPD/GAS: Can you tell me a bit more about this engine?
Moller: The engine is the rotary engine built on the Wankel principle. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but it’s an engine that was similar to an engine that’s used in Mazdas that was invented by Dr. Felix Wankel. It got great notoriety in the 60s and into the early 70s, and then got into a problem when it was proposed for the auto industry when emissions and fuel consumption became big issues in the mid-seventies, and sort of died as an automotive engine except with Mazda, who continued to produce it.
We have taken that basic engine – it was only produced by two companies in the world – Mazda in Japan and Outboard Marine Corporation in the United States, and we acquired all the assets of Outboard Marine Corporation, so we got access to an engine that was in production in quite large numbers. We have then spent a lot of money making it more powerful, making it lighter, making it more reliable – it was always quite reliable, actually – and that’s what leads us to where we are today.
This engine is absolutely essential to the Skycar. In other words, if we didn’t have this engine, if we hadn’t had access to the technology, and then spend the kind of money developing the engine, we wouldn’t have the M200G or M200E or Skycar. None of these vehicles are possible. So I suppose you’d say, the thing that makes Moller a success or failure is the engine, not the Skycar or the M200.
NPD/GAS: You mentioned you had been doing this since the 1980s. Has the development of networking technology and the Internet since then – has that helped with the research and development of the aircar?
Moller: Well, yeah. We use the Internet every day, in many ways, today – the most amazing things. I mean with these modern ordering technologies, we can order something through the Internet in the evening and get the parts the next day in the morning. So there’s other companies that take enormous advantage of this.
It requires, of course more than the Internet, because you have to deliver hard goods, but that system has grown along with the Internet, and that’s like a miracle to someone in my position where I can need something in the evening and get it by the next morning.
Then again, I use the Internet, so do my engineers, extensively for information sources. We’d love to see the Internet change, however. We’d like to see somebody build a knowledge-based system which is much more specific to your interests. You have to do a huge amount of searching today through an awful lot of – unfortunately I have to call it garbage – to get to the material there that is useful on the Internet, but we get there, and it’s a wonderful tool. I wouldn’t want to imagine not using it as we do, and I’m hopeful, and I understand that it is in fact the case that there are companies right now, working on more – I don’t know if you want to call it more knowledge based format for the Internet, but one where you can put in what you need, and they can sort through a lot of the other material that is not of any value to you before, and get to your material much quicker.
NPD/GAS: Thank you once again.
Moller: You’re welcome.
Narration: Thank you for listening to this podcast from NetworkPerformanceDaily.com, providing information and opinion on anything and everything that affects your network performance, from the mundane to the bizarre. Network Performance Daily is the official company blog of NetQoS, Inc., the fastest-growing provider of network performance management products and services.
And from GeeksAreSexy.net, which provides up to the minute technology news, reviews and tutorials to our IT Professional and Computer Enthusiast readership.
Videos of the M200X series and Skycar: