The helicopter may have been the genesis of the idea of personal flight, but it also dashed hopes when, after being perfected in 1943 by Igor Sikorsky, it proved far harder than an airplane to fly. The dominant design employed by the big names in commercial helicopters-Sikorsky, Bell, and Hughes-employ the so-called single main torque system. The natural tendency in a single-overhead-rotor craft is for the body to spin in the opposite direction as the rotor. The small rear rotor was added to counteract that effect and keep the helicopter steady. But the inherent instability of this system means that even accomplished pilots find conventional helicopters hard to fly: Control requires constant corrections, deft hand-foot coordination, and intense concentration. Further, helicopters are complicated contraptions, with blades that must change pitch as the pilot steers (as AirScooter test pilot Jack Nolan puts it, "The blades fly the helicopter"). And complicated contraptions are, of course, expensive.
The solution is a dual rotor system-with two equal rotors spinning in opposite directions-to counteract the gyroscopic torque and yield a net torque of zero. That eliminates the need for a tail rotor; as a result, the controls can be vastly simplified. The rotors themselves can be simplified, too, because their pitch can be fixed. With that design-adopted by Norris and others-the pilot can simply increase the rpm of the blades to go higher, or shift the weight of the aircraft to change the rotors' attitude and to steer.
Consider the wee Gen H-4, brainchild of little-known Japanese inventor Gen Yanagisawa, which weighs a mere 155 pounds, employs four 10-horsepower 125cc engines, and sells for around $29,900 as a build-it-yourself kit. It reportedly can cruise at up to 55 mph for 30 minutes on a 21/2-gallon tank of gas. Why wouldn't this machine trump Norris' AirScooter concept? Well, the AirScooter looks positively rugged compared with the Gen H-4. Picture hanging from two spinning rotors attached to what looks like a small generator, in something that resembles an office chair with long spindly legs. From a distance, an operator looks like he's literally flying by the seat of his pants.
Not good enough, says Norris. "The AirScooter is going to be the first to put all the pieces together in a workable flying machine that anyone can buy off the shelf, and that is nearly maintenance-free and easy for anyone to operate," he claims. "Heck," he says, "even people in wheelchairs will be able to fly it."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.