Military grant boosts research on personal flying craft

The Associated Press
Saturday February 10, 2001

SAN JOSE — The small Silicon Valley company developing a personal flying machine has gotten an important boost in its effort to make the sci-fi dream a reality: a $5 million grant from the military. 

The SoloTrek Exo-Skeletor Flying Vehicle being developed by Millennium Jet Inc. has not been tested in the air yet, though it has been undergoing rigorous testing in a NASA wind tunnel.But the project is showing enough promise to attract the interest of the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), which hopes the SoloTrek someday can help soldiers get around obstacles or avoid dangerous situations. 

“It’s incredibly exciting,” said Michael Moshier, an aerospace engineer and former Navy combat pilot who founded Sunnyvale-based Millennium Jet five years ago and has been pouring his own money into it. DARPA’s funding will come over the next three years, allowing special forces troops to to do further testing after that. 

But don’t strap on your helmet just yet: Consumer use – if ever – would come much later. 

The SoloTrek is one of many projects being considered for a DARPA program called Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation. It aims to find technologies that will help troops maneuver better and carry more firepower and supplies. 

“Systems with varying degrees of sophistication may be explored, from an unpowered mechanical apparatus to full-powered mechanical suits,” according to a description on a DARPA Web page.  

The agency won’t comment further about the program. 

If the SoloTrek works as designed, it would take off and land like a helicopter and transport its user in a standing position. The pilot would stand on two footrests, lean on a sliding backrest and grip handles that control the tilt and speed of Hula Hoop-sized ducts that blow air. 

The 7-foot-6-inch tall aircraft would have a 10.5-gallon fuel tank and a top speed of about 80 mph. It would be able to stay up for three hours, and travel about 120 miles. 

NASA has been helping with engineering and testing, but for the most part, the project has been built on the dreams and sweat of Moshier and his chief engineer, Rob Bulaga. The company is adding employees, in hopes of bringing the total number to seven. 

Moshier estimates that even with the DARPA funding, Millennium Jet needs to raise another $3 million over the next three years to stay alive. 

The next step for the SoloTrek is to be put through what Moshier calls a “high-power static thrust test,” in which a test pilot will fire the prototype up to full power for the first time. The machine will remain chained to the ground, however, while researchers measure its thrust. 

If all goes well, by late spring or early summer Moshier hopes to begin “tethered hover testing” – the SoloTrek would be propelled off the ground for the first time, but still leashed to the ground. 

“It’ll be the first time we’ll see daylight under the tires, so to speak,” Moshier said with a laugh Friday. “We’re continuing to push the envelope one step at a time.” 

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