Not your uncle's helicopter: SureFly will be at Paris Air Show

Not your uncle's helicopter: SureFly will be at Paris Air Show
Credit: Workhorse Group Inc.

(Tech Xplore)—Workhorse, the people behind SureFly, have a dramatic opener on their company site. "After 78 years, the helicopter has been reinvented." It will be available for viewing at the Paris Air Show this month.

Workhorse has come up with a design that features "eight independent motors each driving a single carbon fiber propeller, a backup battery power system, and a ballistic parachute to safely land in the event of emergency."

OK, say helicopter, but based on its attributes IEEE Spectrum's description gets close to its essence, as a "passenger-carrying air taxi." And designboom looks at it as fusing a "helicopter with drone into a carbon-fiber craft."

The company calls it "a personal helicopter/VTOL aircraft." (VTOL stands for vertical take-off and landing.) This is a little helicopter envisioned for "short hop" travel. It uses eight motors to each drive a carbon fiber propeller.

The design is such that it can carry two passengers up to 70 miles—you can fly 70 miles on a tank and then refill.

The company site described dual lithium battery packs, 7.5kWh each, for emergency landing power (5 minutes) in the event the gasoline generator fails.

After all, said Philip Ross in IEEE Spectrum, "Range anxiety, the bugaboo of all-electric driving, is even more frightening for all-electric flying, where running out of power has worse consequences than having to pull over to the side of the road."

"The helicopter has been around for 78 years and is finally being reinvented," said Stephen Burns, CEO of Ohio-based Workhorse.

Why does the company think it is special? For one, Workhorse is promoting its helicopter as safer to fly than traditional designs. The Drive talked about safety features: "The SureFly is designed to fly primarily with the gasoline engine on, using its battery pack as a backup power source in case of engine failure. If one of the electric motors fails, onboard computers can reroute power to the others to keep the helicopter in the air."

The four arms fold down; the company said this offers the advantage of a small footprint in a garage.

The fuselage and props are carbon fiber, for durability and light weight.

So are these autonomous? Not at first. The first copters will be run by humans but Workhorse wants future versions to be autonomous with a payload of up to 400 pounds.

Another feature promoted is its ballistic parachute; Steve Burns, chief executive of Workhorse, told IEEE Spectrum that the ballistic parachute is fired upward, like an ejector seat, "so you can be 100 feet up, and it'll still work. In a normal helicopter the rotor would chop it up, but with eight blades, there's nothing directly overhead."

Who would be interested in this way of getting short runs accomplished in the sky?

"Early adopters will include: farmers interested in precision agriculture; emergency responders, who want to get to the scene of an accident a few minutes faster than they could by ambulance; and the military," said Ross.

Any talk of pricing? Well, "it'll sell for under US $200,000, for the initial adopters," Burns said in IEEE Spectrum.

Workhorse plans to begin test flights this year and intends to achieve Federal Aviation Administration certification in late 2019.

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User comments

Jun 10, 2017
Rather than blade pitch and yaw pedals for directional control, they must be using blade speed variations...

Jun 10, 2017
maybe better with four retractable legs with wheels on the ends for limited maneuvering into and out of tight parking spots like the garage. It mentioned the garage, but how are you going to get that thing in there, drag it?

Jun 10, 2017
I assume the doors will be interlocked with the rotors per pending FAA regs

Jun 10, 2017
Since it's a hybrid with a gas tank, why only 70 miles? Why not twice as big a tank for 140 mile range etc?

And a 400 lb payload will not be enough for two American men (including the pilot) and even a little baggage beyond a laptop and a helmet.

Jun 11, 2017
I love the redundancy built into this copter. Even dual battery packs. Must be based on specs like ASIL-D ISO 26262.

I think the most dangerous aspects of flying in copters are taking off and landing because of the numerous low altitude threats of buidings, wire lines, tree branches, etc. Unfornately this copter looks like it is still susceptible to these dangers.

Jun 11, 2017
Since it's a hybrid with a gas tank, why only 70 miles? Why not twice as big a tank for 140 mile range etc?

More gas = more weight = shorter range. A balance must be maintained.

Jun 11, 2017
FAA has all sorts of regs governing min/max size, power, range, fuel, etc. You've got to know which governed the design of this thing.

For instance more fuel might put it into a different class which would require a whole host of safety additions, pilot qualifications, insurance reqts, etc.

Jun 11, 2017
More gas = more weight = shorter range.

Each unit of gas in the same machine is going to carry itself some distance plus more distance.

Jun 11, 2017
re:emceesquared/pntaylor exchange--

fixed maximum-lift value+energy cost of moving increased weight of fuel=diminishing return on investment. It's the classic pilot's dilemma; adding fuel increases your range but it also increases fuel needed just to move the fuel.

Jun 11, 2017
With the right safety sensors it could be a winner. BUT, with a 400 lb payload, it seems to be a single person aircraft. When I travel any distance, with modest luggage I weigh in around 250 total, and I'm thin. Add to that: you wouldn't want to test that payload limit. But most vehicles only have one person onboard, so it's still looking great. Now let's get the price down.

Jun 11, 2017
There are many problems with this.

First: weight. There will always be a few idiots who think the laws of aerodynamics apply to everyone else.

Second: Weather. Get-there-itis is a plague for many certified pilots. The wealthier someone is, the more "important" they're going to feel it is to get somewhere else, particularly when they shouldn't leave. Winds, ice, dust storms and the like can bring these aircraft down in a way that should scare the hell out of the rest of us.

Third: maintenance. Most do not realize the level of maintenance that a typical airplane requires. It is almost twice as bad for helicopter-like vehicles.

I could go on. I would love to see aviation take off in a big way again. But it won't happen as long as issues like this remain.

Jun 11, 2017
Well, it's not a hoverboard, but if it fits in my Christmas stocking, I'll take one.

Jun 12, 2017
@ab3a: Since they are envisioning fully automated flight in the not-too-distant future all of that will not be a problem.
Fully autonomous quadcopters are easy. Way easier than helicopters.

Weight: It's trivial to calculate weight from take-off power needed. No way arguing around an autonomous algorithm that will just not take off if it's overloaded.

Weather: Quadcopters are also very easy to keep stable - even in high winds. And with an autonomous/centralized guidance system it's also easy to keep these grounded if weather conditions are particularly bad. No way for a passenger to argue around that, either.

Maintenance: Quadcopters are virtually maintenance-free. The only thing that does need maintenance will be the combustion engine. But since there aren't any 'moving parts' in between. (It's basically a motor hooked up to an alternator hooked up to electric motors)

Jun 12, 2017
Weight: It's trivial to calculate weight from take-off power needed.
It's not quite that simple. You'd also need to figure density altitude in to the picture as well. But point taken.

Weather: Quadcopters are also very easy to keep stable - even in high winds.
Uh, no. Try again. Benign looking lenticular cloud formations can have updrafts and downdrafts that will exceed rates of 6000 fpm. That's more than all but military fighter jets can handle. Licensed pilots know to steer clear of them. Airframes have been damaged severely because of them.

In any case, winds are the least of your worries. In flight ice accumulation is commonplace below 10000' for at least half the year. It is not easy to deal with.

Maintenance: Quadcopters are virtually maintenance-free.
So bearings don't wear, motor windings don't age, wiring doesn't degrade, and battery capacity doesn't change, does it? Never mind stress cracks, and the like. I'm not buying it.

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