Since the first was posted about three years ago, team president Mariah Cain has become probably the world’s first “personal VTOL” celebrity through her flight demonstrations of DragonAir’s weight-shifting, electric-powered personal multi-copter designs.
The company traces its origins to Panama City, Florida, where inventor Jeff Elkins first started to look to the sky. He began developing hydroflight systems in 2012 after seeing a demonstration on a trip to St. Thomas. Hydroflight is an extreme watersport where participants use the water jet propulsion from personal watercraft (aka jet skis) to “fly” above the water at the end of a pressurized hose. The rider’s legs are secured to something that resembles a snowboard equipped with two water jets that propel them into the air.
Taming the Dragon
In 2017, Elkins started developing a self-flying Airboard using off-the-shelf electric motors, electronic speed controllers and batteries. The initial design featured eight Turnigy RotoMax 50cc (5.3 kW) brushless electric motors that cost about $300 a piece, powered by 16 batteries, and a handheld remote-control throttle.
Mariah Cain was teaching hydroflight classes at LTS wakeboarding school in Pompano Beach, Florida, when she approached Elkins to make her an LED-illuminated suit she could wear when doing night performances at yacht parties. Elkin’s didn’t have the time because he was filling a large order of LED suits for Sea World, so Cain offered to help him out and learn how to make an LED suit on her own, “and that’s how I started flying the Airboard.”
Elkins had developed a prototype Airboard but was having a hard time finding someone to fly it. Cain was lighter than the other people who had tried to fly it and her hydroflight experience provided a piloting advantage. “The hardest part was trying to figure out how the get the technology in the Airboard to react with the human body,” she said. “The reason we call it DragonAir is because it’s my dragon. I get on it and it does things that it never did before. Other people had a hard time controlling it. You put your body in a certain position and the Airboard reacts to take you in that direction.”
The design uses weight shifting for directional control, “but it’s not as simple as a hang glider” because “there are computers involved… and you have motors speeding up and slowing down to make sure you don’t topple over or get too much push back, but [just] enough to still be maneuverable. So, it [involves] lots of little tweaks in the coding.”
“It was exhilarating and also very frustrating a lot of the time,” she said. “We’d get these 30 and 45 second flights where you would get off the ground, go around and come back down.”
A major breakthrough occurred when Elkins and Cain towed the Airboard to Georgia for a demonstration at a small private lake. “It took a whole day of arguing and fighting to let me fly, and finally he threw his hands up and said let’s do it. I jumped on the thing and said if we are going to do this, we’re going to get a viral video of it, so I stripped down to my bikini and it was the most exhilarating, incredible experience. The first time I had ever flown over water was on that flight. I’d never gone that high. I’d never gone that fast. And that was really what changed everything!”
That night, Elkins edited the video from the drone filming the flight and by morning (July 17, 2017) it was posted on numerous social media channels, “but it didn’t start to go viral until maybe eight months after we posted it… and suddenly everyone knew who we were.”
DragonAir learned about the GoFly Prize about a month before the deadline for Phase 2. The original octocopter with eight open propellers was too large to fit inside the GoFly size “bubble.” So, DragonAir developed a new, lightweight, compact aircraft made of carbon fiber with four pairs of coaxial motors turning 40-inch (1-m) propellers.
“We built a thrust stand and did a lot of experimenting to see how we could get the best numbers,” said Cain, who, as the test pilot, personally experienced the huge improvement in performance. “We had a lot more power. It was like going from riding on top of a little purring kitten to riding on a beastly dragon.”
The original Airboard was a very low budget project with hardly any batteries “and I had to squeeze the trigger all the way to even get off the ground,” said Cain.
“With the next aircraft,” dubbed Airboard 2.0, “I barely had to touch the trigger and it shot me 10 to 20 feet [3–6 m] in the air. We had a little more funding and a reason to build a new aircraft. So, we took things very slow at first,” she said. They “did a lot of configuration changes and coding changes… so we could figure out what the aircraft could do.”
“There are a lot of battery options,” she noted, but “it does get to the point with batteries where it’s not worth it to keep adding bigger batteries because the weight doesn’t add to the flight time.”
In the beginning, most of the work was done by Elkins and Cain but their now tight-knit team that’s passionate about the project started with everyone “kind of just showing up” to help.
Cain said test flights of the Airboard 2.0 were conducted over local lakes and golf courses around Panama City, and every time someone saw her flying “their eyes just light up… that’s one of the things I love about it that keeps me motivated. I have never seen anything that really sparks people’s imaginations like that.” They also flew at Liberty State Park, New Jersey, in October 2019.
“We finally figured out how to get the 20 minutes [of flight time] with the 10-minute reserves a couple weeks before we left for GoFly [in California].” Just before Cain left Florida, she made a 17.5-minute flight, which was documented on video and posted to YouTube.
When the team got to California, Cain test flew the Airboard at the airfield near Half Moon Bay but suffered a “unintentional vertical decent” when an electronic speed controller failed, which was traced to a manufacturer’s defect. A welder was hired to repair the Airboard overnight and Cain was then able to make 12 two-minute flights late the next afternoon to requalify the aircraft, but the flights had to take place in a dog park because Half Moon Bay Airport had closed for flight testing for the evening.
DragonAir had high hopes of flying for the public on “Leap Day,” but all demonstration flights at Moffett Field were cancelled because the winds were variable at 16 kt (30 km/h).
DragonAir was the only GoFly competitor to regularly release videos of their aircraft being piloted, and many went viral. This gave DragonAir and Cain a huge international following and the team started to receive pitches from investors as well as many invitations to fly the Airboard at special events.
By early June, Cain and her team were already building the next version of the Airboard, which will have more safety features. “Once we go through all the flight tests with the new design, we’ll build three more and we’ll start training people on them. We are developing a series of unique demonstrations with our disruptive technology for youth education, which should be really cool,” said Cain.
Note: On Oct. 22, DragonAir posted a video of their latest iteration, the Airboard 3.
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