Critical to the AirScooter's potential, however, is the part not yet demonstrated: the new engine. The main problem with most personal aircraft to date is that to minimize weight they employ two-stroke engines, which are noisy, temperamental, highly polluting, and have a perilous tendency to seize up. The 65-horsepower four-stroke Norris is having built weighs only 80 pounds, but it is, he says, quiet, reliable, low-maintenance, cleaner, and most of all, safer. It's made of aluminum and magnesium alloy and protected from melting at high temperatures by an inner ceramic coating. In addition, it's continuously lubricated by a pressurized distribution tube from a separate oil tank, so it should run smoothly not only when the AirScooter is horizontal but also during twists, turns, and other maneuvers. Norris knows that the four-stroke is the key to delivering on the AirScooter's promise. Though it added greatly to the cost (he's sunk several million dollars into the AirScooter project so far), he founded a second company, AeroTwin Motor Corp., solely to develop the four-stroke. (As this issue went to press, testing remained imminent. Norris promised a tour de force.)
Even without the new engine, the machine simply feels good to sit in. And here in Newport News, I've been promised a chance to fly it, tethered for safety. I love aviation but I'm no pilot, so the notion of learning to operate a vertical-takeoff flying machine in less time than it takes to figure out how to set up a new PC is terrifically appealing. All of which means, of course, that I'm a target customer for the AirScooter. For now, though, I just sit. The crew can't get the peevish two-stroke to cooperate.
"Personal flight has always been my dream," says veteran inventor Craig vet- ter. "The time has arrived." Vetter, of Carmel, California, is best known for pioneering motorcycle designs like the celebrated Triumph Hurricane, but for the past few years he's been threatening to launch a contest to build a viable personal flying machine. Vetter hasn't found sponsors willing to put up the $100,000 prize money he thinks he needs to draw major talent, but the idea is not empty posturing: In the 1980s, Vetter sponsored a fuel economy contest that showcased an array of prototype vehicles that could achieve almost 500 miles per gallon in real highway conditions. The proposed rules for the new contest set out Vetter's version of the dream: to build a vehicle that can fly "low and slow . . . so it won't hurt too much if we crashed. . . . This is a contest to reward mastery of airspace from the surface to 10 feet up." In what we might call personal airspace, flying machines would cruise over or around obstacles and stick to roads only in bad weather. In sun, they would scoot over the open fields.
The incredible innovations, like drone swarms and perpetual flight, bringing aviation into the world of tomorrow. Plus: today's greatest sci-fi writers predict the future, the science behind the summer's biggest blockbusters, a Doctor Who-themed DIY 'bot, the organs you can do without, and much more.