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More than half of all personal aircraft accidents occur during takeoffs or landings. That’s why inventor and entrepreneur JoeBen Bevirt—known for designing airplane-like wind energy turbines—is intent on making runways obsolete. Bevirt, 40, has mobilized his wind energy team to create a personal electric airplane called S2 that takes off vertically, like a helicopter, and flies aerodynamically, like an airplane.

No full-scale prototype exists yet, but Bevirt and his team have built about two dozen 10-pound models to demonstrate their concept works. NASA has taken notice and is now funding the development of a 55-pound unmanned aerial vehicle. Supercomputer simulations of a full-scale, 1,700-pound S2 suggest it could fly two people about 200 miles (New York City to Boston) in an hour on 50 kilowatt-hours of electricity, or roughly equivalent to 1.5 gallons of fuel used by a typical two-seat airplane—which would make the new aircraft about five times more efficient.

S2 wouldn’t have been possible just a decade ago, says Bevirt, who believes new compact and efficient motors, ever-increasing power density in batteries, smarter control systems, and tinier sensors mean his plane will soon be a reality. “There has never been a better time to be an aircraft designer,” he says.

SAFETY AND EFFICIENCY

A dozen compact electric motors operate three times more efficiently than a typical personal airplane’s combustion engines. Bonus: More motors improve redundancy and lower the risk of accidents.

FLEXIBILITY

Retractable arms reposition the motors to transition between vertical takeoff, forward flight, and landing.

CONTROL

Computers adjust motor speed 4,000 times per second to optimize efficiency, reduce noise, and improve flight control.

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Lead Inventor: JoeBen Bevirt

Development Cost To Date: “Several million dollars”

Company: Joby Aviation

Market Maturity: •••••

Click here to see a flat bike helmet, a robotic exoskeleton, and more from our 2014 Invention Awards.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Popular Science.

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