Amid the cow pastures and wind turbines dotting the hills of rural Contra Costa County, a group of engineering students from the Netherlands sat at the vacant end of a country airfield, testing what once might’ve been viewed as a work of science fiction.
The small carbon fiber craft at the center of attention dangled from a crane like a perch squirming at the end of a fishing line. A short distance away, a row of engineers in black t-shirts monitored its motion from behind a strip of plexiglass at the Byron Airport.
“Our concept is a flying motorcycle,” said James Murdza, leader of the group of student engineers from Delft University of Technology. “So a person can crouch inside as if they’re riding a sports bike, and the vehicle lifts them up in the air.”
The group is testing the craft it calls Silverwing for this weekend’s GoFly competition, a multi-tiered competition that’s encouraging the development of a compact, quiet personal flying craft capable of carrying a single person twenty miles.
“Planes have been the same for 100 years or 120 years,” said Hessel Tiyseling, an engineering student working on the project. “So I think this personal flight concept is pushing flight into the 21st century.”
The group’s vehicle, which is called the S1 model, is powered by a pair of lithium batteries operating twin electric motors with blades like a small helicopter that is eventually intended to fly horizontally. During the test, the S1 bobbed and weaved vertically at the end of its tether — which the group is using because of high winds.
But earlier in the week in a hangar in Hayward, the group ran its first successful test with the craft hovering ten feet off the ground without a tether.
“That was really, really exciting,” Murdza said, “because it’s all of our work for the the past two years on the line, and putting it to the test for the first time.”
The success of the test energized the group for this weekend’s competition which runs Thursday through Sunday at Moffett Field in Santa Clara County. Murdza said the competition is so nail-biting, some of the dozen or so international groups who traveled to the U.S. for the competition had to back out after failing to get their crafts up to speed. Murdza was mostly confident his group’s entry would be ready to go in time.
The Netherlands team has so far won two of the competition’s early rounds which awarded it a pair of $20,000 awards, enabling the team to take the S1 to the next level. For now, the vehicle is unmanned although Murdza hopes it could one day carry a person at a speed of about 80 miles an hour.
“This could be really useful for getting to very hard to reach places,” Murdza said. “So for example, if you had a natural disaster it would be a really easy way to reach that place when there’s no infrastructure.”
The idea of a personal aircraft might satisfy those sci-fi fans still ruffled by the absence of those long-promised jetpacks. Still, the team said the likelihood of anyone actually flying around in the contraption is still a good decade away.
“I don’t think anyone’s crazy enough yet to actually sit in this thing,” laughed Tiyseling.
The craft does offer a portal into the somewhat distant future, when people might one day hop into their personal craft to zip to the store for a carton of almond milk. But even more immediate, the vehicle’s use of an electric motor speaks volumes to the greater emphasis on electric motors in transportation.
“I think right now we’re facing so many problems with climate change,” said Bronte Kolar, a member of the team who is working on the electrical systems. “It’s important that we start transitioning toward electric modes of transportation, which is why I think electric air vehicles are so so important for the future.”
At the moment, the air motorcycle of the future was slowly lifting off the asphalt, moving like a punch-drunk prize fighter getting out of the way of a left hook. Behind the plexiglass, the team seemed cautiously triumphant — congratulating each other over their headsets — ready to run the test again.
“I think this is way better than a jet pack,” Tiyseling observed.