The next chapter in the evolution of small-scale flight is being written right here in Edmonds in the combined company headquarters/development lab/and design center of Jetoptera, a startup whose aim is nothing less than to be “the platform that powers the future of air mobility.”
Located in a bright, airy corner space in the 144 Railroad Avenue building, the company is developing new and revolutionary ideas in airframe design and propulsion systems that it hopes will revolutionize the way we think about air travel and create a world where aerial mobility is commonplace.
Jetoptera uses a bladeless fan technology pioneered by Toshiba but more familiar to consumers as those strange fans with the hole in the middle that go under the name Dyson. The company has taken the next step and leveraged this technology to develop its own patented version it calls “fluidic propulsion.”
The hope is the technology will one day power small-scale, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft that are also capable of horizontal flight at speeds that rival today’s conventional jet aircraft. Jetoptera’s approach has attracted the interest of the U.S. Air Force and Army, both of which have awarded several contracts to the company (details here).
For a preview and a glimpse into Jetoptera’s vision for the future, check out this animation of its showcase J2000 air taxi’s capabilities.
The company is spearheaded by visionary aeronautical engineer and Edmonds resident Andrei Evulet, whose academic credentials include a bachelor of engineering with honors from Manchester University, a master of science in aerospace from the Polytechnic Institute of Bucharest, and a Ph.D. from Rutgers.
Evulet’s professional experience combines 25 years in research and development and 14 years in technology groups at GE Global Research, GE Oil and Gas, and GE Aviation, where he was the technology integration leader and technology maturation leader for the GE9X engine. Designed specifically for the new twin-engine Boeing 777X, the GE9X is the largest and most powerful commercial aircraft engine ever built, with advanced technologies that make it the most fuel-efficient engine in its class.
So how does one go from overseeing the development of the largest jet engine ever built to inventing small-scale aircraft powered by bladeless fans?
“I was actually inspired to do this by the 2015 Kathmandu earthquake,” Evulet said. “That area of the world is so inaccessible, and the need for getting humanitarian aid to remote areas was severe. Many roads and even suitable helicopter landing areas were knocked out by the quake, so getting aid and supplies to where they were needed was next to impossible. Battery- powered drones offered some help, but they could only operate for maybe 15 minutes before needing to be recharged. And generators and the fuel to run them were both scarce, so the drones had to compete for electricity with hospitals and other higher-level needs.”
With this as motivation, Evulet, Denis Dancanet and Simina Farcasiu started Jetoptera, bringing together a team with expertise in aeronautics, computer science and design.
“We actually started designing and testing things in the garage of my old house in Ohio,” he added, explaining that they constructed a makeshift wind tunnel powered by a rented compressor to test various designs for airframes and propulsion systems.
In 2017, he relocated to Edmonds, primarily to take advantage of the abundance of expertise in computer science and aeronautics that this area offers, but also to be closer to family.
No longer wanting to work out of a garage, he found space in a ground floor office in the 144 Railroad Avenue building, which became Jetoptera’s world headquarters. But the space was a bit cramped for the various equipment, prototypes and working models, so earlier this year Jetoptera moved upstairs to their current space. The large corner location overlooking the beach and ferry terminal is where Evulet and his four permanent employees develop and refine what they hope will be the future of aviation.
Visitors to the office enter a lobby space dominated by two scaled-down working models of what Jetoptera hopes will lead to everything from air taxis to personal transportation to delivery vehicles (think Amazon, FedEx and others) and more.
“These working models allow us to test our airframe and propulsion system designs,” Evulet said. “Fully loaded, they weigh less than 55 lbs. – we need to keep them light to conform with FAA regulations for test models. Regulations also limit how fast and high we can fly them – we have to stay under 100 mph and below 400 feet – but they’re capable of going much faster — 200-plus mph. We hope by 2026 to have several prototypes that can carry people.”
The propulsion system and airframe were both invented in-house, but on separate paths.
“Overcoming gravity is the big problem, and we first needed to understand the aerodynamics and figure out how much thrust and lift we’d need,” Evulet said. “We design the airframe and propulsion system separately, and then bring them together at the end.”
Jetoptera’s thrusters are patented, but work on the same principle as bladeless fans. A small current of moving air takes advantage of the “multiplier effect,” where more air will be drawn in to follow the initial stream.
“This means we get three times more thrust than our forced-air system puts in,” Evulet explained. “And with no rotating fans inside, there’s no ‘gyroscope effect,’ which means we can effortlessly tilt the thrusters in flight to switch from providing vertical thrust to horizontal or any angle in between.
“Another advantage,” he continued, “is that without spinning parts the housing doesn’t have to be round — we can make it any shape we want. By using an oblong shape we can mount it in front of the wing and tilt it to direct the air over most of the length of the wing itself, thereby providing additional aerodynamic lift.”
One huge advantage to Jetoptera’s system is sound – or rather the lack of it.
“Compared with a traditional propeller-driven device, ours are much quieter,” he added. “This is in part because our compressors give off a higher-frequency sound that tends to be absorbed in the atmosphere (helicopters by contrast give off a lower frequency thwack-thwack-thwack that can be heard over longer distances). This means we are capable of meeting noise regulations even in local neighborhoods, and even at times of day when ‘quiet hours’ are enforced. This would allow a deliverer such as Amazon to make deliveries by air more hours per day.”
With the airframe and propulsion system in place, the one big question remains — how to power the compressors that drive their patented fluid propulsion system, which provides the thrust.
“We’re agnostic about the power source,” Evulet said. “While batteries are one promising source, battery technology is simply not advanced enough at this stage. We don’t want to become a battery with wings – we need to be able to carry cargo and eventually people. So if we’re to be an electric-powered aircraft, someone has to invent a battery that’s better.
“We’re not a battery company – I’m not smart enough to design a battery,” he added with a laugh, “and I don’t want to make the battery thing my problem. Our current prototypes use either jet fuel, biodiesel or SAF (sustainable aviation fuel). I believe battery development will take a national level of investment and commitment. But we’re all set up so that when that great battery happens, we can just drop it in and fly.”
But he points out that other startups are not so conservative.
“Everyone wants to be the Tesla of the skies,” he continued. “There’s literally hundreds of air taxi startups out there that are saying they can do it with batteries, but once you load it with people and stuff you can only do about 10-minute trips before needing to recharge. This isn’t practical, and I don’t believe there’s a market for it. We need to be able move greater distances – 100 miles or more. This is especially important for rescue and humanitarian work like what was needed in Kathmandu.”
Jetoptera’s designs promise an array of practical applications in areas that include emergency relief, search and rescue, agriculture, mapping, surveying, surveillance, medevac, general aviation and more.
“Edmonds provides the ideal location for us,” he explained. “I picked this area primarily because of the abundance of local expertise in aeronautics and computer science. But I also have family in the area, and it’s just — well –beautiful here. I love taking my dog on walks through the parks and trails, and the restaurants are great. I ride my e-bike to work every morning – I already have 2,000 miles on it – and riding down Sunset Avenue to work is so inspiring.”
–– Story and photos by Larry Vogel