The crew on a passenger ship recently hit the headlines when they fired a “sound cannon” to repel pirates. They were using an amazing new device invented by Elwood “Woody” Norris. But Woody may end up being remembered for his new form of personalised air transport.
“Its so cool,” chortles Woody, “I love swooping around ten feet off the ground. It makes me feel just superman.” Norris, aged 65 going on 15, is describing his latest invention and play-thing. Its a one-man microlite helicopter, costs less than a small family car, and he claims, is so simple to fly it can be mastered in a couple of hours.
He’s hoping his ‘Airscooter’, will go into mass production within the next year and revolutionise personal transport, perhaps making car transport obsolete. Before that, there is the small matter of the worldwide launch of his new loudspeaker system, which some are predicting, will revolutionise the way we experience sound.
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But right now the rest of the world wants to talk to him about his Long Range Acoustic Device. A thousand of the cannons are installed now, on “Hummers, boats and armoured cars, and Norris’s company is turning them out “as fast as we can, and we are motivated,” he told me last night. Expect to see Norris this week on CNN, Inside Edition, and dozens of other reports.
We’ll return to the sound invention in a later story — its Woody’s interest in off-grid flying that has grabbed our attention.
His frustration with private aircraft inspired him to develop the single-passenger helicopter. “I have a pilot’s license and I never fly,” he says “because a private plane is like a soapbox derby. The walls are this thin. If you kicked your foot really hard, you could actually kick your foot through the floor of a private airplane. They’re terrible!”
Then there’s Woody’s tendency to get lost. “To stay up in the air, you’ve got to be going 100 miles per hour. I frequently got lost! And so, I was trying to keep the plane flying in a certain direction and I’m also trying to look down at a map!”
And, of course, in the process, he’s traveling 100 miles an hour out of his way, so he decided to invent an aircraft that could stop and hover in one spot while he got his bearings.
While helicopters fit the bill, learning to fly them is difficult and expensive, costing an average of $50,000 and many months to get a license.
In addition, they can be dangerous and difficult to fly due to the physics of the interaction between the rotating blade and tail rotor.
“I wanted something that somebody could learn to fly in a half an hour to an hour. I didn’t know it at the time — and I learned very quickly because you have to do that kind of research nowadays or you’re stupid — counter- rotating blades neutralize that particular danger. So I dreamed up this idea for my little helicopter with blades that counter- rotate and they neutralize the gyroscopic effect.” It turns out that was the design of the first helicopter ever made.
“But, for the big payloads of commercial helicopters, and the things they need to do, two blades was impractical, so they got rid of the second blade and put a tail rotor on it. But for the weight class in which we fall, and the fact that we don’t want to go up to where all the traffic is, our design is perfect and it had not been exploited in the direction I took it.”
Woody and a partner funded it through the prototype construction, utilizing the services of eight NASA helicopter engineers. “The most brilliant thing was to get everybody out of thinking that you need to go 150 miles per hour and up 10,000 feet. The first question everybody asks me is how high does it go? My answer usually is, ‘Who cares? If you’re off the ground, you have the thrill of flying. If you’re six feet in the air, it is the coolest thing on earth. You can go over rocks, jagged glass, water, bogs, marshes… You’re free! It’s better than a motorcycle ever thought of being!'”
If it sounds a bit risky to market these in our litigation crazy times, understand that the computer system basically flies it — the pilot overrides it. “The computer won’t let you do anything totally stupid that’ll cause you to flip over,” asserts Woody. On the other hand, like power steering on your car, if it goes out, you can still operate it.
“This thing has a handlebar like a motorcycle. It’s totally intuitive the way you fly it. Even a paraplegic can get up in one and fly it, he can be totally free. You don’t need legs. It’s all on the handlebars.”
Eventually, they’ll make a 3-passenger version, but initially, only a one-passenger version because an unlicensed pilot is only risking his or her own life.
“We actually have a little screen in the cockpit. You must say, ‘I have read and I accept’ and you hit “enter” or the engine won’t start. And like my Lexus, which has that GPS screen on it, every time I want to use that map, I have to say, ‘I accept.’ It keeps a tally every day, what time of day I turn that map on. If I tried to sue them because I crashed into something looking at that map, they’d say, ‘Seven thousand times, Mr. Norris, you punched ‘ I accept’ — now how many times do you have to do it to understand what it said? Prove to me that you read English.’ That’s the kind of stuff we’re doing to protect our butts.”
There has already been interest from U.S. Customs, the military, and fire and police departments. Then Woody sees the market moving into recreation. “Honda invented the three-wheeler, which is now the four-wheeler, the quad, the ATV — all terrain vehicles. There was no market data; nobody knew if it would sell. They had spare parts and they made one. Last year, collectively, the companies that make those sold $4.5 billion worth of those things.”
Like the ATV’s the only regulation for recreational use of Woody’s helicopter would be that you couldn’t fly them at night or in unauthorized areas. “There are 40,000 acres of land that’s just woods behind my house that I can fly over. I’m not touching it. Environmentalists are going to love it.”
Woody imagines it eventually becoming a commuter vehicle. You don’t need an airport to land at, when a roof will do. It goes 2 1/2 hours on a tank of gas (5 gallons). “The highways are jammed. If these things are proven to be safe enough in the next five or ten year period, it will happen.”
Woody expects it will cost $25,000, half the price of a helicopter license. “This sucker is going to be big time.”