YAVNE, Israel – Rafi Yoeli has an unconventional solution to saving people from burning high-rises or rescuing soldiers trapped behind enemy lines: a flying car.
Yoeli already has gotten a rudimentary vehicle off the ground — about three feet — and hopes to see a marketable version of his X-Hawk flying car by 2010.
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Think of the people trapped in the World Trade Center. Think of ground patrols in Iraq blown up by roadside bombs. Think of New Orleans residents stranded on rooftops after Hurricane Katrina.
X-Hawk and its smaller version, Mule, might one day offer the same capabilities as helicopters, but without the serious operating limitations — such as exposed rotors — that helicopters face in urban terrain.
"The reality is that we have not been designing helicopters to operate in urban environments," said M.E. Rhett Flater, executive director of the American Helicopter Society, a professional group. "What Rafi is doing is addressing that need to design some kind of vehicle that can operate in an urban environment, that can get close to buildings and skyscrapers, and provide some type of relief for people stranded in buildings."
The concept of a flying utility vehicle dates back 50 years. Other design houses currently working on vertical lift concepts with enclosed rotors include U.S.-based Trek Aerospace Inc. and Moller International Inc., both of which focus on a different niche, personal use vehicles.
X-Hawk — for now just a full-size mold in Urban Aeronautics' headquarters in the central Israeli town of Yavne — looks like a futuristic space car, with its streamlined design, two fans rising from the rear and cockpit-style driver's seat.
But Yoeli envisions X-Hawk and Mule as more of a truck, pulling up to dangerous combat or terror arenas to ferry in personnel and supplies and ferry out people at risk.
Like a similarly sized helicopter, X-Hawk will be able to take off vertically, fly up to 155 miles an hour and as high as 12,000 feet and remain aloft about two hours, Urban Aeronautics says.
But encased fans will replace the exposed rotors that keep helicopters from maneuvering effectively in urban areas or dense natural terrain because they have to stay clear of walls, power lines and mountain ridges. And a patented system of vanes is designed to afford the vehicle greater stability.
Urban Aeronautics says vehicles will be able to sidle right up to a building.
The X-Hawk also will be quieter, offering a stealth advantage over helicopters, said Janina Frankel-Yoeli, the company's vice president for marketing.
But because the rotor diameter is smaller, the new vehicle will use about 50 percent more fuel.
Yoeli started working on the precursor to X-Hawk and Mule in 2000, but Flater said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have "given vertical takeoff and landing vehicles a new priority."
"The military is learning that they have to fight wars in cities again," he said. "So we're looking at unmanned aerial vehicles that can provide reconnaissance. Obviously the next step would be to look for vehicles ... that can provide actual relief in urban areas."
Bell, which exhibited a full-scale mock-up of X-Hawk at the 2006 Farnborough air show, sees huge market potential for an aircraft that could operate in confined areas and evacuate wounded soldiers, but hasn't fully committed to the project.
Costs are still uncertain, and it's still unclear whether the X-Hawk can be designed to carry a "useful load — fuel, folks and equipment," said Jon Tatro, Bell's director of advanced concept development.
Mule, configured to carry two wounded people, will carry an estimated $1.5 million price tag. A civilian, 10-passenger version of X-Hawk, for use in rescue missions, utility work or executive transport, is projected at $3.5 million, while a military model carrying a dozen people and more sophisticated equipment would cost $6 million.
Tatro and Flater say the estimates for the military model might be low.
Yoeli expects an unmanned Mule prototype to be flying in two or three years and in production within five. He projects a manned X-Hawk will first hover in 2009 and hit the market within eight years. He hopes ultimately to sell 250 to 300 machines annually, out of up to 2,000 helicopters sold worldwide.
The 55-year-old Yoeli says he's been fascinated by flight since childhood and got into the flying car business after two years at Boeing Co. (BA), five at Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd. and 14 at a company he co-founded to develop unmanned airborne vehicles and helicopter applications.
His initial fantasy was a flying sports car. But because of all the regulatory issues that would have to be resolved before masses of commuters could start whooshing through the sky, he tucked that dream aside to develop something that could hit the market earlier.
Company headquarters are dominated by a large, white-domed flight simulator and the proof-of-concept vehicle that Yoeli says he built in his second-floor living room so he could spend more time with his family.
What's compelled Yoeli on this project is the urge "to get up vertically," without needing a runway or a rotating mechanism overhead.
"You sit in a traffic jam, and everyone gets this urge: I want to get up now, and over this," he said. "You need a certain kind of machine. I think X-Hawk can do it."