Bunhill: Sinking the UK inventor

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The Independent Online
"WHEN you talk about a water taxi you really mean it," says David Royle of an invention that could not only grace the Millennium Dome in Greenwich as a visionary example of 21st-century Britain, but take people there ... via road and river.

Water transport promised much in the 1980s, Mr Royle explains, but ultimately commuter boats failed because for all the freedom they promised from congested tube trains, many Londoners had to endure congested tube trains to get to the river in the first place. But what if you had a vehicle that picked you up at the station, took you through the streets and then eased into the water before taking you down river? And what if this was a taxi that really did go to south London?

This is what the firm of David A C Royle in County Durham is offering: a 30ft river car with a retractable undercarriage which is capable of moving at 30 knots in the water and 50 to 60 miles per hour on land. It's an innovation that Q would have been proud of. However, while the Land Raider would be a fitting vehicle to transport us into the 21st century, it has also provoked a very 20th-century complaint: that, in Britain at least, investors won't back inventors.

Mr Royle's firm has been going for 25 years, in which time it has established a reputation both for reviving vintage cars and building special vehicles from scratch. Among the 650 models it has made are the Armstrong Whitworth, an Edwardian car which followed the classic design of the period in its coachwork but used modern parts for speed and reliability.

Despite proving its roadworthiness the firm decided to broaden its base in the 1980s and, after conducting research, discovered there was a market niche for an amphibious vehicle. Since then it has spent nearly 12 years, and pounds 1.3m, perfecting prototype designs, and the Land Raider is now agonisingly close to completion.

And "agonisingly" is the word because, with pounds 300,000 needed to take the river car into production, the company has run out of funding. Mr Royle has already put more than pounds 800,000 into the project and 21 individuals have pumped in a further pounds 400,000. But the Department of Trade and Industry, after providing pounds 60,000 early on, is unlikely to grant more money because its policy is to back innovative projects at the prototype stage - when most businesses struggle to win backing. Mr Royle has also drawn a blank with the Millennium Commission - probably on the grounds that as a profit- making venture, it doesn't qualify for Lottery funds.

That leaves the private sector but venture capitalists, Mr Royle explains, believe the Land Raider is too much of a financial risk and he has only been able to obtain a pounds 60,000 overdraft from the bank - a loan he has now paid off because of the high interest payments.

All of which would not be particularly surprising if Mr Royle could not demonstrate there was a market for his product. But this doesn't seem to be the case. "We've proved it will work, we're on to the fourth prototype and Disney has said it wants a model for use at its theme parks," he says, "but, until we can find the money for a demonstration unit, there's nothing to show."

Among these expressions of interest are the offshore rescue services of the Channel Islands and the South Coast. Instead of expensive helicopter rescues for people stranded at sea, Mr Royle explains, the Land Raider can be used to pick them out of the water and drive them straight to hospital. Other inquiries have come from river authorities and flood-relief services in placeswhere low-lying land leaves people vulnerable to high tides.

The list doesn't stop there. Customs & Excise is also interested in the Land Raider because it should make it easier to chase suspected smugglers, and fish farmers both here and abroad see it as a way of both feeding and transporting their fish more efficiently. The Royal Marines are interested and so are airports, of which 250 around the world are prone to flooding.

So advanced is the project that Mr Royle has taken out patents throughout the globe and lined up an engineering company, Babcock International, to build live models. All the Land Raider needs is a few dollars more. But Mr Royle is not holding his breath and believes he may have to go abroad for the money - just like James Dyson did for his all-conquering bagless vacuum cleaner. "It's an innovative idea," he says, "and as usual it's been ignored in the UK."