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Zero air vehicle
An artist’s conception shows Team Zeva’s Zero personal air vehicle in flight. (Zeva Illustration)

Team Zeva’s entry in the Boeing-backed $2 million GoFly Prize competition looks like a flying saucer that’s built for one — but there’s method behind the science-fiction madness.

“That’s typically the comment that it draws: ‘It looks like a flying saucer,’ ” the leader of the Tacoma, Wash.-based team, Stephen Tibbitts, told GeekWire. “What drove us to the shape is, we knew we wanted to maximize our wing area in the space allotted.”

The GoFly Prize was established in 2017 to encourage innovation in the development of personal air vehicles. The rules state that teams must design one-person flying machines that are capable of making vertical or near-vertical takeoffs and taking 20-mile area trips, all without refueling or recharging.

The machines can be jetpacks, or flying motorcycles, or giant quadcopters, but all of the hardware has to fit within an 8.5-foot-wide sphere. In Team Zeva’s view, a flying saucer makes the most use of that volume.

“There is some serendipity, in that the round wing is not a new thing,” Tibbitts said. “There was this airplane nicknamed ‘the Flying Flapjack’ that had a round wing. What some of those early experiments in the ’40s and ’50s proved is that the round wing has some interesting aerodynamic attributes that allow it to have a very high angle of attack before it stalls. The shape actually helps us transition from hover to cruise and back again.”

Tibbitts and his roughly 20 teammates are drawing upon a wide range of expertise in engineering and aerodynamics, and they’re also helped by a cadre of expert advisers provided under the auspices of the GoFly Prize program.

The concept behind Zeva’s electric-powered entry, known as Zero (for “zero emissions”), literally started out as a sketch that Tibbitts and a colleague, Ben Gould, drew on a napkin over lunch. Tibbitts was trained as an electrical engineer and got his start as a computer-chip designer. But in the early 2000s, he got his private pilot’s license and became increasingly interested in the frontiers of aviation.

Tibbitts developed his do-it-yourself mentality as founder and executive director of FabLab, a makerspace set up near the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus. When it came time to design the Zero, he recruited some of his FabLab pals.

Now the team is heavily into the fabrication phase, which involves carbon-composite tooling, 3-D printing and lots of custom work. Three generations of scale models have been put through their paces to refine the design.

“We’ve got propellers and motors being customized at a factory in China,” Tibbitts said. “We don’t have those in house yet, but we’ve got some off-the-shelf motors and props that we’re testing right now.”

Zeva has recruited a few sponsors, including Ansys, General Plastics and Lakeview Light & Power, but the team is looking for more. Building a flying saucer doesn’t come cheap.

“I’ve personally put $50,000 to $70,000 into it,” Tibbitts said. And the crucial phase of construction is just about to start.

Last year, the GoFly Prize judges selected 10 winners in the first phase of its two-year, $2 million competition, which has Boeing as its primary sponsor. Phase 1 focused solely on flying-machine designs. Phase 2 involves actually building the machine, with lots more competitors in the fray. Earlier this month, GoFly founder and CEO Gwen Lighter reported that there were 804 teams from 100 countries vying for just four $50,000 Phase II prizes.

Not all of those teams will follow through on their plans, but Tibbitts says his team is on track to file its design documents by the Feb. 6 deadline.

“Beyond that, we’re going to try to get a full-size flying machine assembled by the early June time frame, so that we can begin flight testing,” he said.

The GoFly competition reaches its climax in October, when Phase 3 finalists will put their vehicles into the air for a fly-off  in October. Four prizes will be offered in that contest: $250,000 for the quietest compliant device, $250,000 for the smallest compliant device, $100,000 for a special Pratt & Whitney Disruptor Award, and the $1 million grand prize.

But for Team Zeva, the biggest prize would be having the chance to commercialize their flying saucer.

“We have a couple of plans and ideas in place,” Tibbitts said. “One idea is to push into the first-responder market. You can imagine being able to have first aid flying over the traffic.”

Zeva workshop
Team Zeva shows off two of the fabricated ribs for its Zero air vehicle in Tacoma. (Zeva Photo)

Tibbitts also thinks the Zero would be attractive for security applications, or for thrill-seeking aviation enthusiasts. “We anticipate flying under experimental-aircraft rules, which means we can’t fly over populated areas as a private citizen,” he said.

Despite the limitations, Tibbitts can imagine lots of scenarios where having an autonomous, electric-powered flying saucer would come in handy. For example, a backcountry skier could fly the Zero up to the top of a mountain, program the saucer to fly itself back down to the bottom, and then just take off down the slope.

Tibbitts estimates that the Zero might sell in the neighborhood of $140,000, “like a really high-end sports car.”

Will Team Zeva and the Zero get off the ground? The next few months should tell the tale. But whether or not the Zero takes the grand prize, Tibbitts says he’s loving his flying-saucer trip.

“It’s by far the most audacious — and also the most fun,” he said. “You know what? A lot of people have a hard time believing it, and seeing it, but it’s going to happen, whether Zeva is part of the picture or not. We’ve talked for 60 years about flying cars and ‘The Jetsons’ and all that, but it’s real this time. It’s really happening. It’s going to happen a lot faster than most people are predicting. So it’s a very exciting time.”

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