Zeva Aero, the Tacoma, Wash.-based personal aviation startup that’s been testing flying saucers, is shifting its focus to a more down-to-earth design for aircraft that’ll be capable of vertical takeoffs and landings.
The startup is also getting ready to move its base of operations to Pierce County Airport-Thun Field in Puyallup, Wash. “This will give us room to expand, and the views of Mount Rainier are spectacular,” Zeva said in its announcement of the move.
Zeva founder and CEO Stephen Tibbitts told GeekWire that the roughly 18,000-square-foot leased facility will provide office and shop space, with adjacent land set aside for a future hangar. Zeva plans to move into the new headquarters by the end of May to ramp up work on its new top-priority project.
Tibbitts said the plan for pivoting away from Zeva’s original flying-saucer design took shape over the past year or so.
Zeva was founded in 2017 to go after the GoFly Prize, a Boeing-backed $2 million competition aimed at promoting the development of one-person flying vehicles that could make vertical takeoffs and landings. The GoFly rules required the vehicle design to fit inside an 8.5-foot-wide sphere — and at the time, Tibbitts thought a flying saucer would be the best fit.
None of the GoFly teams ended up winning the grand prize, but Zeva nevertheless persisted. It successfully tested its full-scale Zero flying saucer in a Pierce County pasture last year, and stuck with the UFO look for its second-generation design, known as the Z2. But even as Zeva worked on the Z2, prospective customers were telling Tibbitts that they wanted a more capable personal air vehicle.
“The main thing that kicked it off was a discussion I had with the folks down at the San Bernardino Fire Department,” he recalled. “They wanted something that had a higher useful load, because they didn’t want [to fly] just a 200-pound medic. They wanted a 280-pound medic, and they wanted to bring a full medical kit and the jaws of life. … In order to get somebody out there on a scene who could triage a bad car accident, they needed all these tools.”
Tibbitts also gave some more thought to what he’d want in his own personal air vehicle. “The answer was, I’d want something that, if all systems fail, I’d be able to fly or glide to the ground and land,” he said.
Eventually, he came up with the idea of adding Zeva’s vertical-lift technology to a conventional aircraft. “We picked a potential partner, and so far they’ve agreed to go along with us on this journey,” Tibbitts said.
He’s not yet ready to reveal who the partner is, but the result of the partnership would be an experimental kit-built airplane with four battery-powered rotors mounted on top of the wings. The rotors would come into play for just a few minutes during takeoff and landing. For horizontal flight, the airplane — dubbed Argon — would rely on the plane’s conventional airframe and powertrain.
Zeva’s specs say Argon would have a range of 330 nautical miles and could carry a useful load of more than 605 pounds. Maximum cruise speed would be 140 mph.
“I’m a little bit remiss that I didn’t pivot earlier,” Tibbitts said. “A lot of people that I have talked to are super-positive on the Argon project. … Why didn’t somebody hit me over the head with a 2-by-4 a year ago and say, ‘What are you doing? Why don’t you do something like this?’ But, you know, people are polite.”
The revised timeline calls for Zeva to start shipping Argon experimental aircraft kits as soon as next year, at a price that’s shaping up to be less than $1 million. In 2025, Zeva plans to field an all-electric version of Argon. And if everything goes according to plan, Tibbitts said the plane could win certification by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2026.
Zeva’s first customers are likely to be “wealthy aviation enthusiasts,” Tibbitts said, but over the longer term he expects the market to widen. Customers could include emergency responders, law enforcement officers, firefighters and forest managers — anyone who needs a quick way to get somewhere that lacks a runway.
“For example, emergency medical services in the San Juan Islands, or in Indonesia or Norway, or parts of Africa that will never have the infrastructure that we want,” Tibbitts said. “That’s the ideal application, from my perspective.”
Tibbitts said Zeva has raised a little over $700,000 in funding so far — including investments from founders, families and friends, plus equity crowdfunding and a research grant from Washington state. The company is now in the midst of a fundraising campaign that makes use of a simple agreement for future equity, or SAFE, a financial instrument pioneered by the Y Combinator startup accelerator.
“We have about 25 people on the team, but for a lot of people, it’s their second job, or part-time,” Tibbitts said. “That’s really my goal in bringing in the financing: being able to bring the younger engineers that we need on staff, full time.”
Does all this mean that the Z2 flying saucer is no longer part of the plan?
“There are members of the team who want to pursue that project. It’s just that the practicality of running two projects in parallel is challenging with the limited budget that we have,” Tibbitts said.
“If somebody came to us tomorrow and said, ‘Here’s a pile of money, and we want to pursue both things in parallel,’ we could do that,” he added. “But at this point, we will keep the Z2 on the back burner until we can move it to the front burner. The upshot is, we think that’s a concept that was probably still 10 years ahead of its time.”