Team of Tacoma ‘engineers, designers and dreamers’ wants to build you a personal flying saucer

August 21, 2018

A group of Tacoma-based engineers, designers and experts is working on what is essentially a flying saucer meant to carry a human.

Picture a large flying coin sprouting propellers, and you have a good idea of what the flying machine will look like.

The group is called Zeva, and it calls its aircraft the Zero because its eight battery-powered engines have zero emissions.

“It takes off vertically, and once it’s in the air, it transitions to cruise mode,” said Steve Tibbitts, one of Zeva’s leaders.

The machine is just in the design stages. The group is looking for $1.5 million in funding.

Tibbitts is an electrical engineer and a pilot. He’s also the managing director of Fab Lab, a space near the University of Washington Tacoma campus that offers design and prototyping equipment.

The Zero isn’t a flying car. Those crafts have their drawbacks. Namely, they need a runway.

“You can’t get to where you want to go,” Tibbitts said of airplanes, small and large. “In the last 50 years, hundreds of airports have gone away.”

The Zero, which takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter or civilian drone, is a point-to-point flying vehicle. It will fly at over 100 miles per hour. Using lasers, the Zero will project its landing spot on the ground to warn pedestrians.

“It gets you within walkable distance of any location,” he said.

The target sales price is $140,000, Tibbitts said.

It might seem like science fiction, but so did drones a few years ago. It’s just a matter of time before personal aircraft become common, their proponents say.

“The technology has caught up,” Tibbitts said.

This new generation of personal flying craft uses the same technology that has made drones possible: lightweight materials, stronger batteries and the computer chip.

That last one is important, Tibbitts said, because it, along with gyroscopes, accelerometers and other devices, allows drones and similar craft to maintain level flying conditions.

“A human without the stabilizing chip cannot fly a drone, it’s impossible,” he said.

Advancements in technology allow easier fabrication of components, and computers can test designs in digital wind tunnels.

Other groups are working toward the same goal. Google co-founder Larry Page is backing Opener. That company is already flying prototypes of its BlackFly craft.

Ride-sharing service Uber is working on flying taxis with its Uber Elevate program.

Zeva is currently focused on the GoFly competition. Sponsored by Boeing, the contest’s goal is to build a personal aircraft that is safe, quiet, ultra-compact and capable of carrying a person for 20 miles without refueling or recharging. The contest offers $2 million in prizes.

A prototype that must fit within an eight-and-a-half-foot sphere, must be flown by an October 2019 deadline.

Tibbitts and others from his group will be at Thursday’s Angel Capital Expo Northwest in Redmond in the hopes of finding investors.

Zeva’s team includes electrical and mechanical engineers along with experts in 3D design, composites, software and other specialties. The advisory team includes patent, FAA, battery and other experts.

“We have critical mass,” Tibbitts said. “We have enough people to know where the holes are and fill them.”

Craig Sailor:  @crsailor