It's a car. No, it's a plane. No, it's AirCar.
Kansas University students are assisting a Washington state businessman intent on creating a successful, self-contained flying automobile.
"It's something that you think: 'Wow, this is very SciFi,'" said Yasuhiro Homma, the student leading the project. "It's very, very possible."
The Lawrence-based DARcorporation, an airplane design firm, sponsored the nine-member student team to develop a design for the Milner AirCar. The students, working with Lance Rake, professor of industrial design, will unveil their work today.
It's a project that Greg Thomas, chairman of KU's design department, has dubbed "From Kittyhawk to Jayhawk."
The students have put in long hours contributing to a concept that many have tried and many continue to work on. In its holiday catalogue, Neiman Marcus offers the M400 Skycar prototype for a cool $3.5 million.
"People have been working on this project for 50 years, and nobody has really solved it," said James Milner, the Vancouver, Wash., businessman who is behind the students' efforts. "I don't underestimate the difficulty of being able to do this."
Milner, a former commercial airline pilot who has run two aviation-related businesses, has spent the last year focused on his AirCar project. He has tapped about eight individuals and businesses nationwide to assist in various aspects of the AirCar's development.
It's the future of transportation, he said. Does envisioning a world straight out of "The Jetsons" cartoon sound crazy?
"Everyone thinks I'm crazy," he said. "My mother is even skeptical. I don't know if I'm going to succeed or not, but I'm certainly going to try."
It's a challenge, said William Anemaat, president of DARcorporation. Anemaat said Moller Corporation's Skycar has not successfully "flown like a flying car."
He said one challenge of building a flying car was that the typical aim for autos was that they be substantial enough to deal with crashes, yet planes must be light.
But technology has improved, Milner said, and the weight and durability issue has been solved by using graphite and strong composite materials.
A Toyota Prius, which is about the same size as the planned AirCar, weighs about 2,900 pounds. AirCar creators are planning a flying car that would weigh less than half that.
Milner said he was planning tandem projects, a prototype of a flying car and a car, without the wings, that would be lightweight and get more than 100 miles per gallon of gasoline.
The students drew about 1,000 different sketches of the flying car, Homma said. They considered removable wings, or wings that could be placed beneath the car during driving. Their final plan has wings that meet together at the top when driving.
Homma said it was difficult working with the stated rules for the project, such as the set 35-foot wingspan, and creating a design that not only looked good, but could be functional.
"As designers, we always try to break the rules, to be innovative," he said.
Milner said he likely wouldn't adapt the students' design in its entirety, but would incorporate its good ideas into the final product.
KU's design department aims to work with industry on an increasing number of projects, Thomas said, because it prepares students for work after graduation. The department must keep on top of the changing world off campus, he said.
"We can't remain satisfied with where we are," he said. "We have to move forward."