Steve Saint was five when his missionary father was speared to death by the indigenous people he was trying to contact in the rainforests of Ecuador.
In a twist of fate, he ended up growing up among that same tribe, and later established a lifelong relationship with them through his missionary and development work.
Saint learnt that the tribes want to solve their own problems instead of relying on imported solutions, and the Indigenous People's Technology and Education Centre (I-TEC) was born.
I-TEC works with indigenous churches to equip them with technology suited to their needs — technology they can use and maintain with minimal outside support.
But few would have expected a flying car to be on the indigenous peoples’ wish list.
“We have developed tools and training to help people learn how to do dentistry, basic medicine, and transportation,” says Jim Tingler, development and relations officer for I-TEC.
Their conversations about transport led to a simple flying vehicle design that I-TEC has christened The Maverick.
Tingler says the lightweight car, which is equipped with a propeller at the back and deployable parachute, is “very simple to fly”.
I-TEC isn't the only company to dream up a flying car recently: another model pioneered by French start-up company Vaylon is expected to be available within 18 months.
Unlike a range of other flying cars in development, such as Terrafugia, Skycar, Fancraft or Aeromobil, both of these designs target humanitarian organisations specifically, for use in anything from delivering healthcare to surveying disaster areas. They are a fraction of the cost of a helicopter and avoid the complications of flying a regular plane.
“The vehicle is a breakthrough technology. We are interested in working with the humanitarian sector to determine exactly how it could be used in the field.”
Jérémy Foiche, Vaylon
But with a pricetag at around US$100,000, and collaboration with the humanitarian sector still at an embryonic stage, will they take off?
‘A crazy idea’
Vaylon has named its flying car Pégase, after the flying horse of Greek mythology. It is a lightweight all-terrain buggy that uses a parachute and rear propeller to fly.
The first one has already been snapped up by the French army, which was an early investor.
“The French army know very well the potential of this car,” says Laurence Herve of METIS-ID2, a company bridging the gap between small and medium enterprises and humanitarian organisations, who sees the Pégase as “a Swiss army knife”: a solution to many problems.
Herve describes the many possible uses for the flying car, from damage assessment and transportation of the wounded in disaster zones, to crossing rivers where bridges have been washed away and avoiding unfriendly armies. It is aimed at three markets: humanitarian, leisure and military.
“This is a crazy idea, of course,” admits Herve.
But just five years ago humanitarian organisations were not interested in using drones. Now they understand the potential and many want to use them, she says.
“We are clearly in the same situation with this project of the flying car which is a kind of disruptive innovation,” she says. “First you need to reduce the fear of people about this kind of system, then present the potential.”
The project is funded by a range of French governmental and university research partners.
By the end of the year, Herve hopes to present the project to the European Commission to attract more funding, and to humanitarian organisations to ensure that the final product meets their needs.
“We are in the innovation stage," she says. “We need to validate the concept with testing in the field.”
The car has a single engine, can take off or land in less than 50 metres, and refuels at ordinary petrol stations. It can carry two passengers including the driver, and an additional load of up to 250 kilograms. It can fly at a height of anywhere between a few meters and 3,000 metres in altitude. If the motor stops it can glide to safety.
“The vehicle is a breakthrough technology,” says Vaylon’s co-founder, Jérémy Foiche. “We are interested in working with the humanitarian sector to determine exactly how it could be used in the field,” he says.
“For the humanitarian sector, we could imagine such adaptations as replacing the passenger seat with a stretcher or putting in the front compartment a small camera for field reconnaissance, or a fridge to keep vaccines in, and the vehicle could also carry a doctor to give the vaccinations.”
Designed for rainforests
And while Pégase is expected to hit the market in 2015, The Maverick is available to buy now for US$92,000 (plus shipping costs). Several have already been sold.
“We’ve got a couple in the garage ready to fly,” says Tingler. “They’re ready for sale right now.”
A full gas tank will allow it to fly for about three hours - about 190 kilometres’ range - or drive about 640 kilometres. It can fly up to 4,000 metres in altitude.
It needs 45-90 metres for takeoff and its parachute is robust, made of rip-stop nylon that can be replaced cheaply if it gets damaged.
“The Maverick was designed for simplicity, to be able to be a vehicle that could be driven around on a regular basis, but then flown as needed,” says Tingler.
For example, if a bridge was down or a road impassable, the car could fly around the obstacle.
Troy Townsend, I-TEC's chief executive officer, design manager and test pilot for The Maverick, says, “It’ll do 80, 90 per cent of what a helicopter will do for pennies on the dollar”.
But I-TEC has not started marketing the car or approaching humanitarian organisations yet, apart from Youth With a Mission, a non-profit Christian missionary group.
“They’re interested in finding ways to equip their Mercy Ships with a Maverick, almost as an ambulance to be able to get out to some hard-to-reach locations,” says Tingler.
“We’re really excited about the potential of it now. We feel that we’ve gone through a lot of the testing and worked out a lot of the kinks. I think we're right there, ready to go out and have it be used full time for the [humanitarian] purpose for which it was designed,” he adds.
But not everyone is sold on the potential of the flying cars for humanitarian use.
“For the flying car to become part of the humanitarian toolkit, it would have to better demonstrate it meets a need that other transport can’t provide in an affordable and safe way,” says Amber Meikle, senior policy and practice adviser on technology justice at Practical Action, an international development charity.
“If the kind of innovative effort and energy that went into the flying car can be channeled to meet specific preparedness and response needs then we might see truly pioneering innovation taking place in the humanitarian space,” she adds.
And Louise Bloom, a researcher at the Humanitarian Innovation Project at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, says there is a trend of product innovations being produced by new enterprises which then try to pitch their ideas to aid agencies.
One example is Pégase: Vaylon is now eyeing the aid sector as one of its prime markets.
Indeed, Herve’s company, which aims to bridge the gap between small and medium enterprises and humanitarian organisations, is tasked with finding humanitarian partners for Pégase.
She presented the flying car at the Humanitarian Innovation Conference organised by Bloom’s research group at Oxford last month (19-20 July).
Bloom says that the approach has failed before, because enterprises rarely consult the end users who will be directly affected by the technology.
“By not involving the humanitarian sector or affected communities in the design process, some products fail to address well-defined needs or market gaps, and can be inappropriate to the context in which they will be used,” says Bloom.
“Cost is often another issue within the humanitarian sector; lots of high-tech products come at a high cost without a clear plan of how they can pay back and be good value for money for the sector – which again could be overcome with a deeper understanding of the demand for the product.”
The Maverick, in contrast, was developed specifically for missionary purposes and humanitarian applications such as transporting medics and teachers to remote areas.
“Ultimately our heart and passion was to get this into places that need this, to save people and help them in practical ways,” says Tingler.
And Steve Saint, the visionary behind the project, says on the organisation's video: “The heart of this vehicle is going to be humanitarian aid. This vehicle is capable of changing people’s lives.”
Whether it does so outside I-TEC’s sphere of influence remains to be seen.
See below for a video about Pégase:
See below for a video about The Maverick:
Some of the reporting in this feature was published before in SciDev.Net's news story Flying cars pitched as tools for humanitarian work