The effect of a partnership between a Davis-based flying vehicle developer and a Southern California business consortium may be the present looking more like the future.
Moller International Inc. — a company run by Davis inventor and entrepreneur Paul Moller — is the developer of a four-person vehicle with potential for vertical take-off and landing, known as Skycar. It is also responsible for the two-person Neuera aircraft, Rotapower rotary engines and Aerobot line of unmanned aerial vehicles.
To ground these floating automobiles in a mass-market reality, the company announced last week it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Athena Technologies LLC in Los Angeles.
The joint venture, which is expected to be finalized and approved within weeks, solidifies an initial $80 million for Moller International. The investment will total $480 million for co-production of the Skycar and Neuera aircraft, which is slated for 2014.
“Our company is historically a research and development company,” Moller said. “That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t mean a lot for getting the product — an aircraft — into the market, particularly ones that will revolutionize transportation.”
The need for funds was further made clear as Moller detailed the next step of development — placing a full-size aircraft inside an appropriately scaled wind tunnel testing chamber: “It’s to confirm that the data we’ve seen in our wind tunnels is accurate, before we have someone flying forward at 300 miles per hour. … Just to give you a sense of the technology’s cost, it can be roughly $1 million per day for these tests.”
Depending on how long the process of finalizing the agreement takes, Moller added, the company hopes to demonstrate the latest aerial vehicle models before international media members in the fall.
Moller has been developing versions of the Skycar for more than three decades, and occasionally has exhibited the potential of his machines to the public and shareholders in controlled environments.
In December 2011, Moller announced another joint-venture partnership with a collective of private companies in China for overseas distribution. Included in the provisions of that agreement was $13.7 billion in funding.
Moller contributed the use of its intellectual property to that joint venture, including aircraft designs, Rotapower aviation engines, ducted fan designs and flight control system architecture. In the new agreement with Athena, Moller retains intellectual property rights.
Athena also works on China-America trade relations, as well as e-business networks. According to its website, it is a business consortium consisting of several U.S. private equity funds and credit guarantee companies.
“(Athena CEO) John Gong is incredibly well-connected in China,” Moller explained. “They wanted to partner with an American company to build Skycars in China. … I think it’s driven partly by the company’s interest in the technology, but also driven by what the Chinese government wants to do in China.”
Moller emphasized how pleased he has been with the support, as his lifelong obsession with being the first producer of a flying vehicle builds momentum.
“We’ve been facing an issue of survival at various times over many years,” he said. “It has been a really tough struggle of getting the capital. However, there have been investments totaling close to $100 million over a long stretch of time.
“And it’s a great satisfaction to be able to reward the investors who have stuck with you through such an extended period of time. … We couldn’t be more excited. I can promise you that.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at email@example.com or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett