SUNNYVALE, Calif. -- When you've spent millions of dollars and nearly six years trying to make a personal flying machine, progress is measured in small increments.
So it's perhaps understandable that the inventor of the SoloTrek is touting his most recent breakthrough -- getting the 325-pound machine a few feet off the ground for 19 seconds -- as a test "flight."
"We have to walk before we can run," said inventor Michael Moshier, a former Navy pilot and aerospace engineer. "We're getting more confident, and not yet taking it too far before we get too comfortable."
Reminiscent of a clunky Buck Rogers jetpack, the 8-foot-tall SoloTrek Exo-Skeletor Flying Vehicle has a gasoline engine that drives two large fans. The pilot flies it in a standing position and controls its movement with two joysticks.
The machine is designed to go 80 mph and fly 150 miles on one tank of gas. Moshier plans to add a global positioning system for navigation and a parachute-equipped ejector seat.
The device is envisioned for a variety of uses, from allowing airborne soldiers to avoid land mines or impassable roads, to something traffic reporters and tourists might use.
Moshier and his 10 employees at Millennium Jet Inc. have fired up the SoloTrek a few times in front of the company's headquarters on an industrial cul-de-sac in Sunnyvale, drawing astonished looks from passers-by.
He hasn't yet invited reporters to see a liftoff in person, but he has a video clip of the longest flight, which happened Dec. 18.
The video shows Moshier, with his pants flapping in the wind from the SoloTrek's air fans, getting the machine to hover about three feet off the ground. For Moshier's safety and the protection of his sole prototype, the SoloTrek was tethered to a crane and to poles on the ground.
Moshier plans to test the SoloTrek without any leashes within a few months.
"At this point, he has shown remarkable progress in getting as far as he has in such a relatively short amount of time," said William Warmbrodt, chief of aeromechanics at the nearby NASA Ames Research Center. Warmbrodt's team has helped Moshier research his project and let him use a wind tunnel. "I think it holds genuine promise."
The Defense Department is giving Moshier $5 million over three years in hopes that the SoloTrek can help soldiers get in and out of dangerous spots quickly. Moshier says he is on schedule to deliver a prototype to U.S. Special Forces by the end of 2003.
Moshier believes consumer use is a possibility someday.
But technology forecaster Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, isn't so sure. He wonders whether SoloTreks can be made idiot-proof enough for regulators to deem it safe for the public.
"The moment you move through three dimensions, that takes special skills," Saffo said. "This is a specialty for military, police and less obvious things -- like power line inspection."
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