There are thousands of Americans who have the flying bug but lack the time or energy to put in the hundreds of hours needed for a pilot certificate. But if they have the money, a personal aircraft for which the pilot needs no certification to fly just came closer to entering production.
Rotor X Aircraft, a 50-year-old manufacturer that primarily produces two-seat experimental kit helicopters, announced it will soon begin piloted flight testing of its preproduction Dragon: an ultralight, build-it-yourself, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) design that can be flown without a certificate in the U.S.
The Chandler, Arizona-based company on Thursday shared a video of Dragon’s final unmanned flight tests, which took place earlier in the month. The preproduction prototype, unveiled to the public at EAA AirVenture in July, can be seen taking off, hovering, and cruising at low altitude over the Arizona desert. Not pictured are a ballistic chute and safety cage that will be included on the final production model.
According to Rotor X, these flights cleared the way for crewed testing to begin in early September. After that, the company plans to begin mass producing Dragon in March—if all goes well. Customers can pay a deposit of $19,500 to add their name to the preorder list. Deliveries are expected to begin next spring, and the full price of just under $90,000 will be due once they arrive.
Too Good to be True?
There are a few aircraft designs out there today that can be flown without a pilot certificate, such as the Aerolite 103, Quicksilver MX 103, or Phantom X1. But none have eVTOL capabilities.
So far, the FAA has struggled to chart the path for training and certifying eVTOL pilots. With Dragon, those prospective aviators may not need to worry about that portion of federal rulemaking, at least.
For more than 50 years, Rotor X has produced low-cost, lightweight experimental helicopter kits. Its flagship product is the Phoenix A600 Turbo, launched after the 2021 acquisition of helicopter manufacturer RotorWay, with varying levels of success. But in December the firm made its entry into eVTOL with the reveal of Dragon and the opening of preorders.
The design has some of its roots in military technology, having been borne out of an agreement with AFWERX, the innovation arm of the U.S. Air Force. The contract was owned by defense aircraft manufacturer Advanced Tactics, which was enlisted to build an inexpensive, high-performance, multirotor aircraft for the military.
The company soon realized the design’s commercial potential and partnered with Rotor X in 2021. Leveraging its expertise in military engineering concepts, it has provided personnel and funding to help Rotor X develop and eventually sell Dragon.
With an empty weight below 254 pounds, Dragon qualifies as a Part 103 ultralight aircraft. That means it can be flown without a pilot certificate, but users will still need to follow ultralight regulations. Rotor X will teach customers to fly the aircraft and familiarize them with operational rules at training locations nationwide, including in California, Arizona, and Texas.
The one-seat, all-electric personal air vehicle, or PAV, as Rotor X refers to it, can carry a single passenger weighing up to 250 pounds. It can fly as long as 20 minutes at around 63 mph (54 knots) and recharges in under two hours. The power system relies on swappable, independent battery packs—controlled by redundant flight controllers—which can extend flight time.
Safety features include energy-absorbing helicopter landing gear, a ballistic parachute, a safety cage, and eight redundant independent motors with enough power to keep Dragon in flight even if two of them fail. Its power system, which includes coaxial propellers, can hover or navigate safely to the ground in the event of a battery, electrical, or motor failure.
Dragon is also equipped with automatic takeoff, landing, and hover maneuvers, and can switch from cruise to hover without pressing a button. Its fly-by-wire configuration uses simplified flight controls in the form of a three-axis joystick.
In action, Dragon is about 8 by 6.5 by 6.5 feet in size. But the aircraft can fold to fit in the bed of a pickup truck.
Rotor X bills Dragon as a “quick-build kit,” which it claims—incredibly—can be assembled over a weekend. Customers can place deposits on the Dragon product page—after the first 100 preorders, the final price will rise from $89,500 to $99,000.
Given the novelty of the design, safety will certainly be a concern for pilots. It’s unclear how high Dragon will fly, but even an impact following a power or other failure from even a low altitude could end in disaster for the occupant. And with little knowledge required to operate it, inexperienced pilots and unfamiliar aircraft are likely to create a nasty cocktail.
Perhaps counterintuitively, ultralight aircraft appear to have a lower accident rate than general aviation aircraft, according to some reports. However, ultralight aircraft do not fly as fast or as high, nor are they exposed to weather in the same way as more capable aircraft. And, a significant portion of those accidents involved pilots with few flight hours, which figure to make up the majority of Dragon flyers. Homebuilt aircraft, meanwhile, have relatively similar accident rates to GA aircraft overall.
In the future, Rotor X is looking to develop a two-seat Dragon variant to be used in pilot training. Additionally, it and Advanced Tactics have shared designs for Barracuda, a high-speed VTOL (HSVTOL) for military and commercial applications that is expected to fly three times faster and four times farther than the HH-60 Pave Hawk currently used by the Air Force.
The partners also revealed a passenger eVTOL concept called RX eTransporter. That design would carry up to six passengers and two pilots and fly up to 230 miles (200 nm) at 140 mph (121 knots).