Please, whatever you say, DO NOT call them “flying cars.” Jon Rimanelli really doesn’t like that description.
“In fact, I hate that,” he admits, while escorting a visitor around the wide-open workspaces of Detroit Aircraft Corporation (DAC), where he is CEO. “It’s not a flying car. It is something that will leverage heliports, parking structures, dedicated landing zones, those kinds of places.”
“It” is the future of transportation that Rimanelli is developing: electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft. It is a light, clean, quiet, reliable vehicle capable of reducing a 60-minute, stop-and-go commute from, say, Grosse Pointe Park to Ann Arbor to a quick six minutes by air. And if it sounds like such a conveyance quickly could become your new best friend, you may prefer to call it by its more affectionate brand name – MOBi.
Don’t go racing to the rooftop of your nearest parking structure just yet, however. Rimanelli and his young, intense team of aerospace engineers and systems analysts currently are testing prototypes and flight simulations of VTOLs on their computers before taking scale models of the real deal into the air.
“We’ll fly the thing on the computer first, see how it performs,” Rimanelli explains. “But in order to do that we have to have every known parameter coded into the system.”
They’re taking their time, but Detroit Aircraft is in a hurry. Invited to present at the futuristic Uber Elevate summit in Dallas in April, Rimanelli connected with Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering aviation who worked for NASA more than 30 years.
“I sent him a slide deck and he came back like, ‘This is amazing! Have you revealed this yet? Do you need funding?’” Rimanelli recalls. “He said it was a better version than the aircraft he designed while at NASA. That is huge praise from a guy who’s like the messiah of electric aviation. It was music to my ears.”
Uber has declared its intention to take its ride-hailing ingenuity to the skies, planning to test VTOLs in Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai by 2020.
“I said, ‘Hey, since we are talking about three-dimensional mobility, I think we need to add a third D,’” says Rimanelli. “Dallas, Dubai…and Detroit.”
And 2020 will be here before you know it.
Rimanelli can’t wait. An entrepreneur since childhood, when he was contracted to build 50 remote-controlled model cars for Chrysler, he holds a deep appreciation for this city’s manufacturing heritage. And now, as he looks out the second-floor window of his headquarters at the Coleman A. Young International Airport, a once-bustling terminal now reduced to rubble and neglect, he feels a sense of urgency.
He created a subsidiary brand to market his VTOL system, AirspaceX, and he knows what it could mean to the city.
“I have always viewed this as an opportunity to create an impact here,” Rimanelli says, sunlight gleaming off his silver goatee. “One that can be exponential not only for our community, but also something that can improve the quality of life for people around the country and the world.
“I believe Detroit is a key toward this vision for on-demand air mobility, because we have the mass production infrastructure to produce not only cars but aircraft. For us to be able to produce these aircraft by the thousands would create a lot of jobs. This literally has the potential of being the next industrial revolution. There’s no reason we can’t lead this.”
After all, we’ve done it before. The original Detroit Aircraft Company (DAC) was incorporated here in 1922 and owned most or all the stock in over a half-dozen aircraft companies, including Lockheed. Mounting losses during the Great Depression, when air travel wasn’t exactly a necessity, forced the Detroit Aircraft Corporation into receivership in 1931.
“In the 1920s it was the biggest aircraft company in the world,” marvels Rimanelli, who revived the DAC name out respect for its history. “You wonder, had it survived the crash of ’29, what Detroit might look like today.”
Just a decade later, Detroit received a glimpse. Had Ford not transformed its Willow Run assembly plant to produce Consolidated B-24 Liberators, the bombers famed for carrying the heaviest load capacity during World War II, we all might be speaking German today. And like an attack by one of those legendary fighters, Rimanelli’s next-gen vision was nearly blown away.
For three years he had been developing, producing and distributing small, non-weaponized, unmanned aircraft systems for military and commercial applications…until China entered the game.
“I was selling $60,000 drones, contracting for Lockheed Martin, then the Chinese came out with vehicles less than 10 percent of my price with 80 percent of the capability,” Rimanelli relates. “It completely killed us. I had to lay everybody off, sell off companies. By the end of last year I had $800 in the bank.”
Suddenly, the clouds lifted. An unexpected legal settlement put some operating capital back into his account.
“I went from no money to some money, so I was able to keep some guys employed,” Rimanelli says. “Mark set up meetings for me with aircraft companies to help us get through certification. They all said, ‘This is really interesting, but you need to optimize the aircraft design.’ They suggested we bring on known experts in aerodynamics optimization.”
After almost going broke, Rimanelli decided to Go Blue. As it so happens, arguably the world leader in aerodynamics optimization is a professor named Joaquim R.R.A. Martins, head of the Multidisciplinary Design Optimization Laboratory at the University of Michigan. Rimanelli says Doc Martins now sits on his board of directors.
Better still, his association with Martins gave Rimanelli entrée to the U-M lab’s engineering students – some of whom he has hired as employees or interns – and access to its resources, including the university’s supercomputer.
“It is the most powerful optimization tool in the world!” Rimanelli enthuses. “We’re using their wind tunnels, their tools, millions of dollars worth of equipment we could never afford.”
He’s also reaching out to Detroit business and automotive leaders to generate support for this potential sea change in our manufacturing legacy.
“Right now I feel like I’m herding cats,” he concedes. And there are many details still to be ironed out, questions of liability and safety: Rimanelli says AirspaceX is experimenting with “linear rocket motors,” small lightweight rocket thrusters, under the VTOLs to soften their landings.
However, when Rimanelli – an amateur pilot who has logged more than 1,000 hours of flight time – envisions Detroit’s Jetsons-like future…well, the sky’s the limit.
“I have two planes and I never fly them anymore, because they’re kind of a pain in the ass,” he says. “You’ve got a checklist, there’s all this stuff to do. I want to go, push a button, click and fly.
“And think about all the risks of driving these days. You’ve got people on their phones, potholes, traffic. There were 40,000 vehicle fatalities in America last year alone. If we can make commuting safer and faster, if we can make personal air mobility accessible and affordable, we have an opportunity to network the country in a way that’s never been done before.”