Fiction Science Club

Zeva’s flying saucer concept ascends to the next level

Eight months ago, Zeva Aero conducted a milestone flight test for an electric-powered flying saucer that would warm the heart of any sci-fi fan. Now the Tacoma, Wash.-based startup has changed the design ⁠— and although Zeva’s Z2 will look less like a UFO, it will look more real.

“It’s not just science fiction,” Zeva CEO Stephen Tibbitts says.

Tibbitts explains what’s changed since January, and why, in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

The company’s first full-scale prototype, known as the Zeva Zero, was developed to compete in the GoFly Prize, a $2 million contest for single-person flying machines.

After Zeva put the Zero through its first untethered, controlled flight test in a pasture south of Seattle, Tibbitts and his team decided to change things around for the Z2. “We’re moving on to what we think solves some of the issues that the Zero has,” Tibbitts says.

Zeva’s goal for the Z2 is basically the same as it was for the Zero: to create a flying vehicle that takes off and lands vertically, but pivots for horizontal forward flight. Its range for flying a single person would be 50 miles, with enough power to hit a top speed of 160 mph.

The streamlined Z2 design still has something of a flying saucer look, but it calls for bigger, more efficient propellers that are mounted on four large motor pods. Zeva also plans to incorporate the latest in battery tech. The new design may not be as compliant with the GoFly Prize’s design specifications, but it’ll more stable on the ground for takeoff.

“We have not finished the prototype yet,” Tibbitts says. “We’re working on it. We have quite a bit of CAD [computer-aided design] work to do before we start cutting molds. But once we start cutting molds and making composite parts, it should go fairly quickly.”

Zeva is aiming to have a Z2 prototype ready for testing later this year.

Stephen Tibbitts
Stephen Tibbitts is the co-founder and CEO of Zeva Aero. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Tibbitts is proud of how far his team has come since the company was founded in 2017. So far, Zeva has gotten its funding from founders, friends and family, plus an equity crowdfunding campaign that brought in more than $200,000. Tibbitts says the company currently has in the neighborhood of six “quasi-full-time” employees and 25 experts it can call upon for advice.

“The remarkable thing about Zeva, really, is that we’ve produced a 100% full-scale flying prototype over four and a half with a budget of $700,000,” Tibbitts says. Now Zeva is ramping up for what it hopes will be a multimillion-dollar Series A funding round.

Can Zeva keep up with much larger companies that are also working on electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles, or eVTOLs? Companies like Bell, Joby Aviation and Boeing-backed Wisk Aero? Tibbitts says Zeva can occupy a niche of its own.

“A lot of it has to do with focus,” he says. “We’re focused on trying to drive the technology down into the hands of people that just want to fly. Other companies are focused on urban air mobility. … I happen to believe that eVTOL technology has wide-ranging applications far outside the city.”

Zeva aircraft parked at house
Artwork shows Zeva’s eVTOL parked in a driveway. (Zeva Aero Illustration)

The way Tibbitts sees it, the first applications could include providing rapid-response air vehicles for first responders and law enforcement officials. He also notes that the U.S. military is looking at eVTOLs for a variety of applications.

“If you look at what the Navy’s asking for, they’re asking for a small, compact aircraft that can launch itself,” Tibbitts says. “They want to be able to store a bunch of these in a container ship … and then be able to launch them to either go ship-to-shore or ship-to-ship, and just supply goods. Not necessarily hauling humans around.”

Once Zeva gets its design figured out, the business plan calls for setting up a pilot production line, most likely in the Puget Sound region. “I would be so bold to say it also could be the site for the future Gigafactory — if we’re following the Tesla model, in terms of being able to set up a factor to stamp these things out and make lots of them,” Tibbitts says.

Zeva is planning on an initial price tag of $250,000.

“I think there’s margin in there for us at that price,” Tibbitts says. “But I also would want to be able to drive it down to a lower cost point eventually — five, six, seven years from now — into something that’s attainable for the consumer. So, you’d have your choice: You can buy a Lamborghini, or you can buy a Zeva.”

Zeva in SkyDock
In this artist’s conception, a Zeva eVTOL is parked on the side of a building at a SkyDock. (Zeva Illustration)

Tibbitts admits that he’s been inspired by the flying cars of science fiction, going back to the bubble car that was featured in “The Jetsons” and the magnetic air car that popped up in the Dick Tracy comic strip starting in the ’60s. But he says the real-life flying machines due to emerge in the decades ahead will look a lot different.

“The ultimate goal, I think, for the next 20 years is to combine eVTOL technology with high-speed, cross-country travel,” Tibbitts says. “Everybody wants a business jet that can land and take off vertically, and there’s actually some Air Force work going on in that area.”

In February, the Air Force selected 11 companies to move ahead with high-speed eVTOL concepts. One of those companies is Jetoptera, which is based in Edmonds, Wash. Another company on the list, VerdeGo Aero, was co-founded by Bainbridge Island resident Erik Lindbergh, the grandson of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh.

Zeva may not have made the Air Force’s list this time around, but Tibbitts clearly has high-speed flights in his sights. “That’s the next big phase — to get to a point where you’ve got a machine that can land and take off virtually anywhere, but can also go 300-plus miles an hour and get you to your destination very quickly,” he says.

So, if Zeva stays in business long enough, make a note to watch the skies as the Z10 zips by.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

Tibbitts is familiar with a lot of the science-fiction tales that feature flying cars — a list that includes not only “The Jetsons,” but also “Minority Report,” “Blade Runner,” “The Fifth Element,” “Star Wars” and yes, “Back to the Future” and its DeLorean time machine.

But if you ask Tibbitts for his top sci-fi recommendation, he’s liable to mention a movie that goes way beyond flying cars: “Interstellar,” the 2014 film that stars Matthew McConaughey and features a huge black hole, mind-bending time dilation and a brush with extra dimensions.

The Science of Interstellar
“The Science of Interstellar,” by Kip Thorne, capitalizes on Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi movie. (W.W. Norton & Co.)

“What really struck me about that film is how they portrayed the aspect of multi-dimensions,” Tibbitts says. “It’s fantastic — the attributes of the human mind to imagine how you could portray that kind of concept are pretty amazing.”

Nobel-winning physicist Kip Thorne helped the filmmakers imagine how a monstrous black hole could look, and how it could distort the fabric of spacetime in the service of the movie’s plot.

Thorne even wrote a book about the exercise, titled “The Science of Interstellar.” A year ago, we added Thorne’s book to the list of selections for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, and in light of Tibbitt’s recommendation, it’s worth a second mention.

The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to become available at your local library or secondhand book shop. Check out our lineup of recent selections, plus a backlist that goes way back, to the beginnings of Cosmic Log in 2002.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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