Exoskeletons, Sky Bikes, and Flying Cars

His 18-foot-tall, one-ton prototype flame-throwing “mecha” exoskeleton looks like something out a Transformers movie, but 32-year-old former army mechanic Carlos Owens is quick to point out that his mecha doesn’t convert into a panel truck or motorcycle when I ask him about it. “It’s not really a transformer, it doesn’t transform. I want my next mecha to actually transform from a mech into a vehicle.” In this video, Carlos introduces his DIY NewMech NMX01-1A:

 Built over four years at a cost of $25,000, Carlos invented mechanical muscles to control the mecha’s joints using 27 hydraulic cylinders and a pump powered by an 18-horsepower engine. Like the character Ripley from Aliens, a driver climbs inside the exoskeleton to control the mecha’s ability to walk, bend down, or open its hands. Steel cables transmit the driver’s movements to the hydraulics. Capable of shooting flames from its hands, NewMech NMX01-1A would make an awesome foe at a demolition derby — “to blow stuff up,” as Carlos says.

CarlosCarlos is perhaps the most unlikely dude you’ll ever encounter in Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. He spends the long, cold sub-arctic winters building wild, weird, and perhaps just plain ingenious contraptions: exoskeletons, sky bikes… and, if he has his way, flying cars. His inventive spirit, mechanical abilities, experimental can-do attitude, and all-American knowhow bring to mind images of the early Wright brothers. Not unlike the Wrights in their famous bicycle shop, Carlos labors away in his backyard shop. And not unlike the Wrights, his gasoline-powered, 3-engine sky bike will soon visit the Alaska equivalent of Kitty Hawk: “The flight test is going to be in about two weeks. I’ll be getting sky bike out and up and having it filmed to put up on YouTube.”

His mecha, he tells me, has been put on the back burner due to the lack of a suitable investor in these harsh economic times. He has since moved on to other projects “that I think have a better chance of taking off. The sky bike is the latest.”

Flying Bike

h+: Where’d you get the idea for a “sky bike?”

Carlos Owens: Have you ever heard of the Wee Bee from around 1948? I just found out that this thing existed. I’d been working on the sky bike for almost a year now and I never knew about this Wee Bee aircraft. [Editor’s note: here’s a video of the Wee Bee:]

 I recently came across this video and I realized there were a lot of parallels with what I’m doing. It’s really awesome. People do misunderstand what I mean when I say “sky bike.” They are no pedals — and there are three engines in this thing.

h+: What powers the engines?

CO: Gasoline (laughs)… three 2-cycle gas engines. They are Tecumsehs, but Tecumseh is no longer producing engines. Tecumseh, in fact, is no longer a company. If anything happened and I needed to replace the engines, I really wouldn’t be able to do that because they’ve all sold out at the surplus centers.

h+: Whatever happened to the Wee Bee?

CO: You know, I tried to track down those guys. I never did find anyone from that project. I mean, they’re probably all about 90 by now. I just thought it was really cool that they did that. They never really did try to get it advanced further than what they had. So that was it. That was their prototype… they never did keep going.

So now I’m working on the sky bike. If that thing really gets off the ground, it’ll give me the motivation to continue the project and to actually build a second generation and a third generation of prototypes. Because what I want to do is to build a motorcycle that has two wheels. This would be a regular motorcycle… and not a “flying motorcycle” that’s really a “street-legal gyrocopter” where the propeller folds down… which is clearly not a motorcycle as you normally think of a motorcycle. I want to build a motorcycle that looks like a motorcycle and that transforms into a flying vehicle.

As for flying cars, what’s out there currently is an airplane that’s street legal that folds up. When I say “flying car,” I want a car that looks like a car and drives like a car that can either transform from a car into an airplane or that simply flies. If I wanted an airplane that is street legal, well… I’d get an airplane.

I want a car that looks and drives like a car that can transform into an airplane. If I wanted an airplane that is street legal, I’d get an airplane.

h+: Do you plan to test out the sky bike yourself?

CO: Yep. I won’t let anyone else attempt it before I do because I know that if something happens to me… I can live with that. That’s fine, I’ll just heal and do it again. But if somebody else gets hurt, well that’s a whole other ballgame. I’m just going to get off the ground. I’m not trying to get 12,000 feet or anything crazy. It should be pretty epic. I’m looking forward to doing that.

I’m not doing it for anyone else at this point — I’m just doing it for myself. I do put pictures of it up on my web site because I like to get myself out there so that other folks can see what I’m up to. And I have other projects besides the sky bike. Either I’m working on the sky bike or one of my other projects, or I’m at my day job putting together bid proposals for construction jobs (to pay for all this stuff), or I’m gaming.

h+: So the mecha is on the back burner?

CO: I always wanted to see a real live mecha and I wasn’t going to wait around for somebody else to do it. I believe that if you want to do something in this life, you only have so many days attached to your life. You might as well do it yourself. If you tell me “where’s my flying car,” I say just go build it.

So here’s the deal. The bike takes off, right? The bike goes up in the air and the bike flies. Then, what I’ll wind up doing is working on the car version. I already have my engines. I already have my propellers. I already have most of the materials and I have my engine mount already built. But I’m not going to go further than that until I see how the bike turns out because I’m going to learn a lot from that. If I go up in the bike and it all works out… well, then it’s car time. And then there’s sky bike prototype #2.

Since I can’t get funding for the mecha, I’ve had to move on. I’d like to come back and build new prototype mech when I can afford it. That costs more than these other projects by a large margin. I’m going to take all the parts off my existing mech because there are no handouts for hydraulics and many of the other parts. So, I’ll end up implementing the existing parts into the new mech.

The existing mech is built as an exoskeleton so that you can climb into it, control it, and make it walk. I didn’t want to build a mech that was like a statue. There are videos of me on YouTube moving around inside it:

 I want to build a mech that’s actually a transformer next time around. It’s going to be pretty amazing. It’s not enough just to have a mech. You want to do stuff with it. That’s why I put flamethrowers on it.

h+: Are you familiar with the Japanese work on exoskeletons?

CO: You mean the human-assist limb suit? [Editor’s note: HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) Cybernetic Suit from Cyberdyne Corporation of Japan.] That’s pretty awesome. I think they built the prototype for around 10 grand. It’s heavy duty. You can lift a lot of kilos with that suit. It’s got some really great neural-feedback features too… not so much mind control as muscle control. It can detect the signals from the brain to the muscles. So people who couldn’t walk can walk with it using attachments.

h+: Would your next exoskeleton prototype combine with your flying car?

CO: No, it’s a completely separate project. None of my projects really have anything to do with each other. They’re totally different.

h+: Was it the Transformers TV series that inspired you to build the mecha?

CO: No, not at all. If anything, it was the Robotech series. Way back in the day, Robotech was amazing — old school anime. I think they’re going to make a movie out of it in 2012. [Editor’s note: here’s a video of the original Robotech series:]

 h+: Do you plan to program the mecha like the characters from Spielberg’s film AI?

CO: You mean the one where the little boy was the key mech? That was pretty interesting. No, I don’t do anything with programming, software, or any kind of robotics that are related to motherboards, circuits, and all that good stuff. I don’t do any of that. I’m purely mechanical. If it’s mechanical, then I can build it.

h+: What’s a typical day like for you?

CO: Well, today I have to cut some parts out and weld them up because I’m putting some landing gears on the bike. I already have a front and rear tire, but the gears are for stability when I land. There was… as I recall… a B-2 aircraft that had two wheels that it would land on. But, I’m not trying to do that. I need more stability. Since I’m trying to keep the weight down, I had to use really lightweight parts — bicycle tires. In the future, I want to go with motorcycle tires and have turbine engines on there, but for the prototype, I just want to make sure that it succeeds. While I haven’t worked on a turbine engine, but I have activated them and turned them on. You add fuel to it, fire it up, and it goes.

h+: Well, be careful on that first sky bike test flight!

CO: I will, man.

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