By Ben Forrest

Ben is a freelance writer and editor who frequently works with MHM Publishing.

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The technology behind ZEVA’s plan to put an eVTOL in every garage

Stephen Tibbitts comes across as the antithesis of a maverick Silicon Valley CEO. The mild-mannered, soft-spoken chief executive of ZEVA has the even keel of a college professor as he explains his plans for the ZEVA Zero, a disc-shaped eVTOL his tech startup is developing in Tacoma, Washington.

ZEVA plans to certify the Zero eVTOL as an experimental-class aircraft with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) within the next six months, placing it in the same company as kit planes. Photo courtesy of Nityia Przewlocki

He is not brash or bombastic. There is no hint of Elon Musk or Steve Ballmer-style showmanship. But his ambitions for the Zero are not small.

“I think eVTOL represents the largest opportunity of our lifetimes,” said Tibbitts, speaking over Zoom. “Bill Gates [predicted] a computer on every desk. We’re saying a ZEVA in every garage. That’s our goal.”

After about four years of development, that goal appears to have taken a leap forward. In early January, a full-sized prototype of the ZEVA Zero achieved its first untethered, powered, test flight.

Its eight zero-emission, electric-motor-driven propellers lifted the disc — 8.5 feet in diameter — into a steady hover, then smoothly maneuvered forward several meters before launching high over a grassy field in Washington’s rural Pierce County.

“I feel ecstatic, super proud of the team and our accomplishment,” Tibbitts said. “And hopefully, that’ll help us really get out of the starting blocks. We need to raise a significant amount of money to get through transition flight and certification and get it into production.”

The design

ZEVA launched in 2017 as an entry in the GoFly Prize competition, sponsored by Boeing, which offered a $1 million grand prize to a group that could create a safe, quiet, ultra-compact personal flying device.

The prize required near-VTOL capabilities and the ability to carry a single person at least six nautical miles and stay in the air for 20 minutes, plus a 10-minute reserve, without refueling or recharging.

To tackle the challenge, Tibbitts and his partners designed a disc-shaped body that is roughly two feet thick, with a small bump over the passenger area to provide extra room for the pilot.

In take-off mode, the disc resembles a coin standing on its edge, steadied by landing gear and elevated by electric thrusters mounted on the wing’s midsection.

After reaching acceptable altitude, the disc is designed to transition onto its flat side for horizontal flight.

The thrusters would pivot to propel the aircraft forward, achieving a target cruising speed of 160 miles per hour (257 kilometers per hour).

In early January, a full-sized prototype of the ZEVA Zero eVTOL aircraft achieved its first untethered, powered, test flight.

According to the designers, most of the lift achieved during forward flight would come from air flowing over the wing-type body, but some additional lift would come from the downward-canted thrusters.

It’s expected the aircraft would travel 50 miles (80 kilometers) from point to point, powered by five battery packs that each have 2.5 kilowatt-hour capacity.

“We knew that in order to stay in the air long enough to meet the requirements and to have a reasonable range and speed, we needed to have energy savings,” Tibbitts said. “And this blended-wing-body gave us the energy savings that we needed … our vehicle wants to get up off the ground and transition and go fast.”

Safety measures

Initially, the ZEVA Zero will be manually controlled by licensed pilots using a pair of joysticks mounted inside the aircraft.

But the eVTOL can also be piloted remotely, and the plan is to eventually transition to autonomous flight. In that scenario, artificial intelligence within the aircraft would communicate with an air traffic management system to chart and execute the flight plan.

Planned safety measures include loading the aircraft with sensors that would detect imminent mechanical failure and either alert the pilot or land automatically, Tibbitts said.

The company intends to include a ballistic parachute that would deploy in the event of equipment failure and incorporate Kevlar into the body of the aircraft to further protect the pilot.

“We thought about safety quite a bit,” Tibbitts said. “We wanted something that would protect the pilot from the elements as much as possible.”

Zeva Zero
ZEVA launched in 2017 as an entry in the GoFly Prize competition, sponsored by Boeing. Photo courtesy of Nityia Przewlocki

Path to certification

ZEVA plans to certify the Zero as an experimental-class aircraft with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) within the next six months, placing it in the same company as kit planes.

A private pilot’s license would be required to operate the aircraft, with autonomous flight arriving further out in time.

“We think the tech [for autonomous flight] will be available in 2026 or 2027,” Tibbitts said. “But we don’t have any good feeling for how soon the FAA will certificate autonomous vehicles.”

The timeline gets fuzzier from there.

As it stands, ultralight aircraft have a maximum airspeed of 55 knots (about 63 mph or 100 km/h), far below the ZEVA Zero’s target cruising speed. And a great deal of both work and funding is required to ensure the Zero can safely transition from hover mode to forward flight.

“There’s just a lot of things to think about logistically …  to make that happen,” Tibbitts said. “Long-range plans are to build a manufacturing facility here in the Puget Sound region and then be able to take that concept factory and cookie cutter it in maybe two different places around the world. We want to be able to, through volume of manufacturing, drive the cost down so everybody can afford one.”

Real-world applications

If ZEVA achieves its goal of placing an eVTOL in every garage — and even on the balcony of every city condo with its planned SkyDoc landing system — it will be a coup.

But the company sees applications for the aircraft beyond personal mobility and island hopping in rural areas. ZEVA envisions its aircraft carrying paramedics and search-and-rescue workers to the scene of disasters, and law enforcement officers on reconnaissance and extraction missions.

“We can fly it remotely and use it for cargo, [or] firefighting,” Tibbitts added. “But I think the floodgates really open up when we drive the price down and we get this into the consumer space. Then it’s like — sky’s the limit. It’s an unlimited market size, and I think people are twigging to that.”

Join the Conversation

15 Comments

  1. “There is no hint of Elon Musk or Steve Ballmer-style showmanship.” That is very refreshing 🙂

  2. I would Be honored to experiment with one of those in my garage except my garage is too small I am a Pilot and mechanic what would happen if one motor dies

  3. I Am A Royal Electrical Engineer Thank you Just Simply Brilliant Fabulous I Will be buying your Shares 🤔👌It would be great too pick 😩up static Electricity 👈🍷Gift of the gods

  4. eVTOL vision is very forward looking.
    I wish I could see it flying our Canadian neighborhood soon. Wish the team the best in all their endeavors. Wish to buy few shares of the company.

    1. Well I do not see this flying machine making it very far in the now if e v t o l community if you’re going to design this this way you must put the propellers on the outside of the perimeter of the ship itself otherwise they must be functional both ways the lift has to stay in place while the other two push it forward that means one at the front then one at the rear to lift with especially for lift-offs then the other two hard drive Motors must fly it in a straight path this means propeller size has to be looked at you’re not even close to the other of EV t o ls I think the no wings makes it better but harder

  5. Flying at higher altitudes is a real challenge, because at higher altitudes the density of air is very low which means that propellers with the shape of Leonardo da Vinci’s concept helicopter would work successfully, hence I suggest that experiments like this must be conducted in Nepal also known as roof of the world

  6. The biggest problem with electrical drones is the exposed props. Until you hide them, it’s a bit like suggesting to the buying public that large knives that were attached to Roman chariot wheels is a good idea on the family car. It appears to dangerous and they will not buy it.

  7. No horizontal flight? Then why all the fanfare? Until that happens, totally unconvincing and why all the cheers and high fives for a very ordinary performance. What a non achievement.

  8. That design when the Santa Ana winds in California kick up will kill the operator. Slam them right to the ground. As in many cities where these are going to be used it won’t work. Food for thought.
    LA, San Fran, Chicago. Pretty much where ever the wind blows .

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