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Max Owens '22 Builds a Flying Manned Vehicle

Transcribed from a conversation with Max Owens '22

I started getting interested in STEM when I came to PD. I was born in London and lived there for nine years and then moved to Charlotte for my dad’s job. In Middle School, I saw the Makerspace and the 3D printers and got interested in the printers themselves and how they actually worked. Mr. Rickett was the Makerspace person before Mr. Johnson and started me off using Tinkercad which is a computer-aided design (CAD) site for people who are new to CAD. I started designing things and built my first 3D printer out of a kit when I was ten. I eventually went on to design and build my own 3D printers and I printed parts from the first one I made to create a new printer, so it was basically a 3D printer made out of 3D printed parts.

I eventually became interested in Gcode, the language used to control 3D printers, and that interest eventually led to me learning how to program in over 6 different languages and becoming well versed in programming machine learning and AI algorithms. I got interested in 3D printed planes which led to drones and drone racing. I built my first racing drone which was so much fun to play around with and customize, and then I thought that it might not be too difficult to take what I knew about racing drones and implement that information into an actual manned aerial vehicle that I could sit in and fly in. I have not sold my drones; I’ve built a couple but they’re just for me to play around with.

I originally started this project three years ago as a challenge to myself. I came up with the idea of designing, building, and programming a flying manned vehicle. I had built a drone before, a racing drone, and I thought, “What if I could put myself in there and fly around? And what if I could make it autonomous?” Of course, I knew that the project would be a huge challenge to myself, but I also knew that I would learn so much about design, programming, fluid dynamics, physics, entrepreneurship, and a myriad of other useful and interesting lessons and skills. 

Because of the impracticality of a 14-year-old designing, programming, and building a flying manned vehicle, I basically started the project as a joke. As much as I knew about engineering and programming at the time, I knew that I had so much more to learn before I would be able to complete the project, so I basically told myself, “I’ll just start working on it and see where it goes.” I had worked on a bunch of other smaller engineering projects, I built a couple of 3D printers and designed a lot of functional machines in CAD, so I had some helpful background knowledge and lots of programming experience. I thought taking on a project like this that takes experience in coding, designing, and engineering could be a great way to learn new skills, have fun, and build something very few people on earth have built. 

I love a good challenge, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could complete a project as advanced as this. I wanted to prove that no matter what age you are, you can achieve anything that you put your mind to with great passion, determination, and dedication. So I just started working on it. So far, the project has taken three years because of the extensive planning that it requires. The prototype is in my garage now. Because of its scale, it doesn’t fit straight through the garage doors – the frame is 11 feet – so you have to angle and tilt it to get it in, but it’s all in there. 

Basically, on the first version I made, the design was cool but it was based more on looks than functionality. It was harder to build and there were lots of things I hadn’t quite figured out on the physics side of things. This design is the eighth one and I’ve figured out a lot of things throughout the process of designing. The latest design is the easiest to build because of its polygonal shape. I used XPS or extruded polystyrene from Home Depot, and, based on my CAD drawings, I figured out where to cut and bond the pieces. I then fiberglassed the body and did copious amounts of sanding to make the fiberglass smooth. I will be applying a wrap to the exterior within the next week as a final exterior touch. Just that process took a really long time, probably the whole summer because all of the measurements had to be exact to make my life easier during the fiberglassing stage and so that it would fit the welded frame that I designed for it.

Right now, the stuff I have in my garage is probably worth $3K in materials. Overall, I’ve spent thousands of hours designing the body and frame, calculating thrust requirements, designing the motor configuration, picking out parts, calculating flight time as well as the drag coefficient, and heaps of other calculations and preparations to make sure that this vehicle makes it off the ground safely. All of the stuff in my garage is paid for out of pocket by my family and me. Since starting this project, I started asking for Home Depot gift cards for my birthday rather than toys or games. Now I’m getting to the part in the building process where the materials and electronics are more on the expensive side. I designed the body to be cheap – it’s XPS, it’s fiberglass – the frame is aluminum so I outsourced the welding to a welder about a 40-minute drive away. I gave him my design, cut the aluminum, and dropped it off at his house. He then welded it and we picked it up. The electronics are the expensive part of this. I’ve calculated the overall cost to be $30K and that’s for the motors, propellers, electronic speed controllers or ESCs, the flight controller, as well as the batteries and stuff like the seat and helmet for safety. 

It can be flown from within and remotely. I decided to use a remote control so you can sit inside it with the remote control or stand outside with the remote control. I’m also making use of my machine learning and AI experience to make the drone autonomous. The vehicle will have an iPad on the inside with a geo map. The pilot can select their desired destination on the map and basically click go. The vehicle will take off, fly to, and land at that destination. I’ll have to get approval from the FAA and register the vehicle. It’s on my radar and something I’ll have to look at soon. 

My hope is to turn this into a commercial venture. I’m currently conducting research and considering how I could make this a real company. There are really only two companies that are doing something similar, however, the companies are very young, so they struggle with flight time and price. Once released, their vehicles will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I plan on keeping my vehicle cheap, affordable, and efficient to increase its flying range. It’s safer than a helicopter. Because of its 8-motor configuration, up to four of the motors can fail (depending on which ones) and the vehicle will still be able to carry its pilot to safety. Whereas in a helicopter, if the back rotor goes out or the top rotor goes out it will certainly crash. It’s a lot safer, easier to fly, and it’s electric, so it’s also environmentally friendly. You take the battery, charge it, put it back in, and then you’ll fly. I am currently trying to work on making it more energy-efficient and seeking a patent. We have a funding goal and the plan now is to have about a 15-20 minute flight time from the batteries as a proof of concept. However, the power configuration can easily be scaled to double or even triple that time once I get started on the second version. 

Contact Dr. James Edge with questions or visit when the website launches in mid-October of 2021 to view drone renderings, learn more about Max, and understand how this vehicle can impact the world in a positive way.


Mr. Buchanan (the welder I outsourced to) and me standing in front of the frame (which took a few minutes to fit through the garage door)