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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.
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.”
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).
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”