Catching Up With DragonAir Aviation



In March, TechFarms tenant DragonAir Aviation was named one of five finalists in the $1 million GoFly competition, an international human flight contest sponsored by Boeing. The team’s entry was the Airboard, a vertical takeoff and landing aircraft on which they had been working since 2015. Top five honors came with a $50,000 prize, which the team has put to good use creating the all new Airboard 2.0. See what DragonAir’s Mariah Cain and Jeff Elkins have been up to in preparation for the Grand Flyoff in February 2020.

So what’s new since you found out you were GoFly finalists?

Cain: GoFly basically gave us a platform to get our focus on building the next version of this, which is the Airboard 2.0.

Elkins: The original Airboard I made with readily available components: the motors, the speed controllers and then the battery system. And just the material that it was made out of was fairly standard. So all those things needed upgrading, and I would have gone about it pretty simply just upgrading each component and building the same exact system, but GoFly came along and gave us a little cash, so we went and bought parts — my dream parts.

So what can this thing do?

Cain: With our new board, I can fly for almost 40 minutes.

Elkins: We’ve actually got one model that shows over an hour for Mariah. This thing can handle a 200-pound pilot for 20 minutes at up to 75 mph. With new batteries, coming soon, we can double that time. And there are no jets, fuel, loud noise … Just charge the battery and squeeze the throttle!

You just started manned test flights on the Airboard 2.0 in the past week or two. Are you nervous about having it ready by February?

Elkins: Well, with this particular aircraft, we’re just starting the test hours. But if you look at all the thrust tests we’ve done (on a homemade flight dynamometer), we’ve got 25 or 30 hours of testing right now. The Airboard 1.0 has 300 hours of testing. … This machine here is basically a dynamometer for aircraft propeller drive systems: It can simulate drone flight. It has a bunch of sensors and equipment on it that run through the computer, and it can analyze the way that the motors work, the thrust and the voltage and the current, and set the curves for the battery usage and all those other cool things. The nice thing about that is that before we fly, we have a lot of data on the drive train.

Cain: We are well into testing and certifying every component to make sure this device is as safe as possible. All of our results have exceeded our expectations, and we are beyond elated at the potential of this product for future applications.

There are no established safety standards for this type of aircraft. How do you work without those kind of guidelines?

Cain: Being a part of GoFly has opened up the door for us to work alongside the FAA in developing the standards that will be applying to the use of these aircraft for years to come. Being one of the pioneers in a new style of flight comes with the responsibility to look into the progression of how personal VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) air vehicles will be used and how to keep everyone involved safe in the process.

Elkins: We’re helping create the standard as we go. We have a safety protocol: No. 1 is not hurting any unwilling participants. No. 2, we don’t want to hurt willing participants, so that includes ground crew and people who signed up to be part of this program. And No. 3, we don’t want to hurt our pilots that are flying the aircraft. When you’re creating a whole new class of aircraft, you kind of have to set up some kind of public perception projection. So we want to project a public perception rise in this type of aircraft. We want people to start seeing them and appreciating them and hoping that at some point, we can create a market for one of these.

At the end of the day, we can come up with a protocol for the components themselves and say, “This is the minimum standard for a motor, for an aircraft like this that flies a human being.” So that’s what we’re doing. So when we qualify a component for our Airboard, even though we’re doing it for ourselves, we’re also creating the criteria for further qualification for components for those type of aircraft, and that’s one of the things that we think will be lucrative in the future.

When you started on this project, did you imagine yourselves basically helping to write the rule book for the industry?

Cain: No, definitely not. Just applying was a really long submission: a huge design report, all these safety reports, a huge stack of paperwork. It took me like three good months of day and night ridiculous work. I was writing a standard operating procedure today and realized I was literally writing an aircraft manual. I thought, “You’re kind of playing with the big boys.” This is a big deal.

Elkins: It’s very ambitious. It’s beyond ambitious. It’s crazy, and crazy is exactly where I love to be. If I can’t be in crazy mode, then I don’t wanna be in any mode.

What happens at GoFly’s Grand Flyoff?

Elkins: They haven’t announced it yet. We know it’s in San Francisco, and we’ll be flying over water. Mariah’s first 50 flights at least need to be over water. We’re talking about 100 flights over water before we can qualify this system to fly over land.

So what’s next?

Cain: There are really exciting things happening. I guess everyone will get to see soon!

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