The need for money to keep alive its 40-year dream of a flying car is driving Moller International's efforts to put a two-seat 'flying saucer' craft into production for recreational and other uses.
"Our focus is on the long-term product, the M400 Skycar, but we need to stop and make a little money along the way or die," says Bruce Calkins, general manager of the California-based company.
Past infusions of cash came from sales of the Super Trap automobile muffler, or silencer, designed by Paul Moller, inventor of the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) Skycar.
But a plan to raise money through sales of the Rotapower rotary engines developed to power the Skycar has not panned out.
"Since we sold Super Trap we have not had an income stream," says Calkins. "We created Freedom Motors and licensed it to produce our engines for non-aviation uses, but it has not captured the market in the timeframe we thought."
Starved of cash, Moller International looked around "to see what resource we could [make ready for production] immediately to generate revenues so that we can continue on the path to the M400," explains Calkins.
The result was a decision to offer for sale a production version of the two-seat M200X prototype built and flown some time ago to demonstrate the VTOL technology behind the Skycar.
To avoid the cost of having to certificate it with the Federal Aviation Administration as an aircraft, the M200 is being offered initially as a ground-effect vehicle only.
"We know the restrictions that would apply if we built it as an aircraft. As a ground-effect vehicle it is not subject to regulation, so we can [get it ready for production] and offer it quickly," says Calkins.
MI is offering five versions: a basic M200G that will be software-limited to a maximum of 10ft altitude to stay within ground effect an M200D for agricultural and recreational use over private property that will be able to fly higher a paramilitary version, the Firefly 3, for urban rescue and other missions a manned or unmanned military variant (M200M/R) and a kit version, the M200E, that the buyer can build and operate as an aircraft under the FAA's experimental category.
The saucer-shaped M200 is powered by eight of the company's Wankel rotary engines, each driving its own ducted fan. Two engines types are offered: air-cooled, producing 50-60hp and water-cooled, producing 70-80hp.
The sheer number of engines has the advantage of providing redundancy. "You can lose one and hardly know it," says Calkins.
The disadvantage is the high fuel consumption. "This is not a fuel-efficient vehicle," he admits.
Fuel consumption is around 0.5lb/hp/h and the M200 will carry enough fuel for around 1.5h endurance, Calkins says. But rotary engines do offer low noise and low vibration, and reliability is high. "It's like an electric motor," he says.
Having set prices at between £62,500 ($125,000) for the basic M200G and £225,000 ($450,000) for the paramilitary Firefly 3, MI is looking for refundable deposits and hoping to establish a backlog of around 200 vehicles.
This would enable the company to raise the funding needed to put the craft into production, he says.
Moller International's aim is to make production M200s available by the end of this year, but that will depend on the reaction to its offering the vehicle for sale, says Calkins.