Thursday, April 24, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Hobbyists will soon fly a scaled-down Moller Skycar

Paul Moller, a Davis inventor and entrepreneur, shows off a one-ninth-scale model of his Skycar 400, a vertical take-off and landing vehicle. Moller has signed a deal with American Space Industries, a Bay Area-based company, to produce the remote-controlled reproductions. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

Science-fiction novels — they’re still the only place where UFO-like flying automobiles lifting off and buzzing away can be described as normal.

And while Davis inventor and entrepreneur Paul Moller has spent nearly a lifetime developing a flying machine like that futuristic fantasy, he’s been unable to bring such a car to market.

But now, model aircraft fans will be treated to a radio-controlled reproduction of Moller’s Skycar 400 model — albeit at one-seventh size — thanks to a partnership between Moller International Inc. and American Space Industries. The Skycar has the potential for vertical take-off and landing.

Russell Decker, CEO of the Bay Area-based American Space Industries, approached Moller three months ago to discuss a partnership.

“When it comes to Moller’s aircraft, the way it flies is so fantastic that we just had to have it,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to fly it. It has such unique, premier aerodynamics.”

While there are quad-copters that can ascend vertically, Decker said nothing really compares to the Skycar’s flight characteristics.

But because of that, it’s going to be quite a technical endeavor for American Space Industries to scale the Skycar down.

“There are elements to stabilizing a small vehicle that are significantly more difficult than a bigger vehicle,” Moller said. “Our experience is that he’ll have to have fairly rapid processing.”

Like others in the line of Moller International vehicles, the Skycar 400 is driven by the company’s trademarked Rotapower engine. It features four of the compact rotary engines, one each in every nacelle.

Because miniaturizing the engines and integrating them into the sub-scale models is not feasible, the remote-controlled Skycars instead will rely on recent advancements in battery design for power.

American Space Industries’ developers will be using lightweight components, in conjunction with layout data supplied by Moller International, to get the little aircraft in working order.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” Decker said. “If we do a good job on creating this first one, we’ll probably be talking again with Moller about replicating some of the other designs.”

The release date of the RC vehicle is slated for mid-October. It will be available in local hobby stores and online, Decker said, with the price tag of $300.

The accessibility of the replica Skycars will far predate that of the full-sized vehicles, as Moller International is still in the process of securing enough capital to proceed with production.

“You spend a huge amount of money to get to the next stage, and then it’s incrementally more money to get to the stage after that one,” Moller explained. “The aerospace business, as anyone knows, is an expensive business.”

In December 2011, Moller International announced a joint-venture partnership with a consortium of private companies in China. Included in that agreement is $13.7 billion in funding, with a stated objective of overseas distribution of Skycars by 2018.

At the beginning of this year, the company announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Athena Technologies LLC in Los Angeles to establish co-production for its aircraft in China.

The joint venture, which has yet to be finalized — despite a recent Moller International news release stating that “steady progress” is being made on it — will amount to a $480 million investment.

But Moller International lost a reported $1.2 million in its first three quarters of 2013, ending March 31. It also suffered a loss of $1.1 million loss in the same period the year prior.

Though the financial struggles bring questions as to when the dream of a Skycar on the market may be realized, there’s a certain enthusiasm for it that’s been reignited by the announcement of the reproduction.

“We didn’t get involved in this with that view in mind,” Moller said, “but we’ve certainly seen a lot of interest because of it; so from my point of view, and that of stockholders, it’s a good thing.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at bjohnson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

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