John Mohyi, the head of Michigan start-up Mohyi Labs, has radical ideas for transforming drones and flying cars
I’ve always had a fascination with having my own personal aircraft. It had to be like a helicopter, so it could take off and land vertically, but without the hindrance of spinning blades.
I thought there had to be a better way of propulsion. I was fascinated with how the blades work, why they are in that geometry. I shelved the idea, and then one day I was swinging a tube around and I noticed it was actually creating suction.
I put it into a 360-degree shape instead of a single tube, and I thought: “I wonder if I can use this as an alternative means of propulsion”. My invention is ‘ducted counter-vortex impeller technology’. It uses centrifugal force to push the air radially, and then converts it into thrust.
Potential uses for the technology include drones without blades, and flying cars. The drones could make deliveries – flying at ground level with no risk of falling on people, and no blades to injure them. The cars could soar above the ground in rural areas, and float above roads like hovercraft in the cities, perhaps taking to the air only to jump over traffic jams.
I don’t have a formal background in engineering. I see myself as a member of the ‘hobbyist’ community. I learned from doing it first hand.
In the eighth grade, I carried around a notebook which I filled with ideas for inventions. Early ideas included a collapsible hard-case sleeping bag, a lens-free holographic projector, and a way of storing syringes in a clinic. I’ve got a bunch of different concepts in my mind.
I built a fabric prototype of this propulsion system, and secured a grant from the state of Michigan. I also won a slot on a television show called America’s Greatest Makers, where I had the chance to pitch an updated version of my technology to industry giants including the chief executive of Intel.
There was only one problem. It didn’t work. I had a few months. I started doing iteration after iteration with a 3D printer. At one point I was making a prototype a day just to get something to work. With a few weeks left, I had a breakthrough. I literally got it working the day before we went on the show. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked! I had a proof of concept and from there I’ve been improving it.
Now I’m working with three engineers to optimise the product and get it ready for commercialisation. We are getting some significant thrust and I believe that in the next two iterations we’ll have something that’s actually more efficient than a blade.
I’m using physics simulation tools to model airflow and speed up the development process. The plan is to first build a drone with the technology – that will happen in under a year. I’m working with some autonomous vehicle developers to combine our propulsion system with their machine vision capabilities for a drone that can do autonomous tasks.
After that, I want to scale the technology up. In a decade’s time I would like to see our propulsion system be the cornerstone of drone delivery. I’d also like to see a personal transportation embodiment of our propulsion on the mass market. Having a flying car is one thing, but something that works in a mainstream environment and at a mainstream price point would be ideal.
It’s best to internalise as many skills as possible, so you don’t get caught in the ‘valley of death’ that afflicts many start-ups. Your first idea is not going to be the right one. Entrepreneurs should become self-teachers if they want to make it out of the valley of death. When travelling through uncharted territory you must become the expert you need.