By the end of the year, a team of students from the University of Kansas hope to have a small working model of a personal helicopter-like aircraft.
After that comes the full-size version.
“So when you see a pod racer on the silver screen, that’s a Hollywood fantasy," said KU professor Ron Barrett-Gonzalez. "...But if you made a specification that said, 'Hey, design person, use your engineering skills to do actually what a pod racer would do,' this is what we came up with."
Barrett-Gonzalez and eight students from KU are in the thick of a global competition, called GoFly, to come up with personal flying machines. KU's "Mamba" made it through the first round of the Boeing-sponsored competition, which had 160 teams from 33 countries. The team won $20,000 and a chance to move on to the next round with nine others. After three rounds, one winning team will get $1 million.
“We are the Midwest hometown team," Barrett-Gonzalez said.
The KU team's Mamba design emphasized safety. The six-engine hexcopter has a roll cage and is expected to have a training mode for new pilots. Originally the team envisioned a flying motorcycle and a name like "Sky Hog," said Lauren Schumacher, the team's leader and a Ph.D. student studying guided munitions.
“As we got through the design process and the aircraft started to take shape, it looked more and more like a snake head, so we had to change the name at that point," Schumacher said.
The aircraft is designed to be user-friendly and provide an "open air experience."
"The idea being that we really don't want to put a lot of load on the pilot," Schumacher said. "The pilot we just want to have a good time with this aircraft.”
Operators likely wouldn't need a pilot's license, she said.
Barrett-Gonzalez expected the safety-minded design would help set the KU team apart.
The competition was unique. Schumacher said the students got started in January and had to work on a tight timeline. Designing an aircraft can take decades.
"I would say as we got really going with the competition, I would usually put in 40 to 60 hours a week on this," Schumacher said.
That's on top of her academic schedule.
Competing against a mixture of professionals and schools was also a shift for the KU team. Barrett-Gonzalez said an alumnus approached the school about the Boeing competition last year.
“We were actually quite hesitant at first because normally we don’t compete against companies or government agencies or people working for NASA," Barrett-Gonzalez said. "We compete against colleges.”
The next step for the KU team is to take their full-scale stationary model down to half or one quarter of its size and make it fly. For that, Barrett-Gonzalez said, the team would need more like $250,000 to $500,000. The first-round prize was $20,000.
"They asked that the students form a company, and they're looking for venture capital," Barrett-Gonzalez said.
With $2 million or $3 million, Barrett-Gonzalez is sure the team could then move on and make a full-size working version.
As an engineer and a "lab rat," Barrett-Gonzalez said he doesn't have venture capital connections, but for anyone who does, he said, "I've got enough money to pay for lunch."