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Sound-beam inventor takes the prize

Innovations ranging from a sound-beaming system to the AirScooter ultralight helicopter have earned Elwood "Woody" Norris the prestigious $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize.
Elwood "Woody" Norris has been named the 2005 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for his remarkable inventions including HyperSonic Sound, which targets sound to individual listeners, and the AirScooter, a novel single-person helicopter.
Elwood "Woody" Norris has been named the 2005 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for his remarkable inventions including HyperSonic Sound, which targets sound to individual listeners, and the AirScooter, a novel single-person helicopter. Lemelson - MIT
/ Source: The Associated Press

Elwood "Woody" Norris doesn't let conventional thinking stand in the way of his inventions.

To cut down on human-made sound straying beyond its intended audience, Norris developed a way to create a focused beam of sound waves, sort of like focusing a beam of light.

To put flight within reach of people lacking time and money to invest in pilot training, Norris helped create a simple-to-fly, ultralight helicopter.

Those ideas and others have earned Norris 47 U.S. patents over four decades in fields including engineering and medicine — not bad for a guy who started taking apart radios at age 8 but never earned a college degree.

At age 63, Norris has earned what he calls "the Nobel Prize of inventing": the $500,000 annual Lemelson-MIT Prize, the largest single cash award for invention in the United States. Norris' prize is to be announced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Monday and bestowed at a ceremony Friday in Portland, Ore.

'Interested in everything'
"I'm interested in everything," Norris, who subscribes to 35 magazines on topics scientific and otherwise, told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

But the Poway, Calif., resident and father of 11 children — ranging in age from 13 to 38 — says he's "not Thomas Edison."

"That guy used to work and not sleep. I'm the laziest inventor you ever met," he said. "My inventing is in my head — I don't have to be in the lab working and sweating."

Current areas of interest include hydrogen-powered automobiles and — lest he be accused of setting his sights too low — understanding gravity.

"It's embarrassing that we're in the 21st century and we don't even know what makes gravity work," he said. "I'm getting older and thinking maybe I should tackle more than the mundane. I may fail, but at least I will have tried."

How to focus sound
His sound-focusing invention, known as HyperSonic Sound, starts by generating ultrasonic — above the range of human hearing — sound waves, which can be focused in a tight beam rather than spreading out in all directions.

As these high-frequency sound waves pass through the air, they generate lower-frequency sounds that people can hear. By stepping into the "beam," a person can hear sound that someone standing a foot or more away can't detect.

"It's going to quiet everything down," Norris said. "If you don't want to be bothered by it, you step to one side and you don't hear it."

San Diego-based American Technology Corp., which Norris founded in 1980, is working on commercial applications with automobile companies, supermarket chains, museums, airports and the Department of Defense.

In cars, the technology could allow parents to listen to their favorite music in the front seats while kids in back choose their own. An airport terminal message could be beamed only to travelers in a specific area while not disturbing everyone else. A supermarket promoting a sale on cereal could project a sales pitch to shoppers in the cereal aisle.

Building the AirScooter
Norris, a licensed pilot, began working on his AirScooter helicopter project out of frustration with ultralight airplanes. Although these small, low-flying aircraft generally don't require a regular pilots' licenses, Norris says they are risky and still require too much training.

He hired engineers to help create an ultralight helicopter weighing less than 300 pounds (135 kilograms) with counter-rotating blades that neutralize the gyroscopic effect that necessitates tail rotors in conventional copters.

Norris says a novice with little or no flying experience can learn to fly in an hour or so. He expects his single-passenger, ultralight helicopter will become commercially available sometime before year's end for $47,000 apiece.

A foundation for inventors
The Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by Jerome Lemelson, who died in 1997, to raise the stature of inventors and to inspire invention and innovation among young people.

Norris plans to use his Lemelson-MIT prize to establish a foundation to help struggling independent inventors.

"I spent much of my life dying for somebody to help me even file for a patent or make a prototype," he said. "I understand that."