Is the new SureFly a giant drone, an eVTOL or the future of helicopters? Any way you look at it, SureFly is the latest dream that aviation visionaries are working feverishly to make real.
From the pair of high school dropouts who built, tested and flew the first heavier-than-air aircraft, the Wright Brothers, to today’s engineers at Boeing and Airbus trying to squeeze an extra mile of endurance out of an airliner, the aviation industry has always been the realm of dreamers.
Cincinnati-based Workhorse Group came to Los Angeles this week to show off the latest dream, their SureFly eVTOL aircraft, on the ‘integrated helipad’ of a $12 million dollar private home in the exclusive Brentwood area. SureFly appeared as a concept at last year's Paris Air Show.
Although as an “Octocopter” it resembles nothing so much as a giant drone, a casual observer encountering SureFly would call it a helicopter, due to its familiar egg-shaped fuselage, landing skids and rotors.he stylish new flying vehicle certainly looked good on the custom deck, overlooking the canyons and city of Los Angeles. There was a little Hollywood magic in its appearance, however, as the craft, still in the testing process, arrived via truck rather than air.
Workhorse calls SureFly a “hybrid-electric eVTOL multi-copter” with an octo-quad layout of four arms and eight rotors, which makes it reminiscent of many drones. Although the term “eVTOL” refers to an Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing vehicle, SureFly is called a hybrid-electric rotorcraft because the power for the 8 contra-rotating electric props is provided by an engine running on fossil fuels.
A designer estimated the total horsepower equivalent for the copter at about 600 horsepower. As an engineer noted, today’s batteries cannot yet provide the energy density as petroleum-based products.
SureFly seats two people or one plus cargo, with a maximum payload of around 500 pounds and a gross takeoff weight of 2500 lbs. It’s built of carbon-fiber to keep it as light as possible, including using thin plastic seats. The company says SureFly is designed to fly approximately 70 miles at a speed of 70 mph, day or night.
Like a drone, SureFly is designed to be easy to fly, using fly-by-wire systems and a center-mounted joystick control. Unlike a helicopter with long rotor blades, the SureFly is not designed to auto-rotate in an emergency. However, there is a ballistic parachute designed to bring the whole aircraft (and passengers) to a safe landing when deployed above 100 feet.
In addition to private owners who may be attracted to the SureFly’s ease of operation, eVTOL aircraft like SureFly are seen as key to future travel such as Uber’s announced Elevate network. Elevate’s “objective is to implement an Urban Air Mobility (UAM) ridesharing network in cities across the world.”
The flying electric vehicles of the hopefully-near future are supposed to provide, as Uber put it, “multi-modal, on-demand service that will reduce riders’ commute times and free up ground space.”
Whether such teams of flying cars will really take to the urban skies is an open question. Yet the company notes that the aircraft was the first hybrid-electric eVTOL multi-copter accepted by the FAA for the Type Certification process. “We feel that [FAA] acceptance of our Type Certification application represents a vote of confidence in our team, our product and the future of electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft in the United States,” said Steve Burns, CEO of Workhouse Group.
The manufacturer, Workhorse Group, has already announced electric transportation innovation, with a pair of N-GEN delivery trucks (4700 lb payload and 6700 lb payload) and a drone delivery option. The HorseFly UAV, which has a payload capacity of 10 pounds, has been tested by UPS for “last mile” residential package delivery by autonomous drone. And yes, it’s also an Octocopter design, although it only weighs about 15 pounds.
Along with the technical challenge of perfecting the craft and obtaining FAA approvals, Workhouse has its financial work cut out for it. A spokesperson said the company would probably look to spin off the SureFly group or perhaps look for an aerospace acquirer, paths that might allow it to build hundreds of the compact copters.
Certainly, the logistics of a helicopter on every deck have yet to be worked out. Just ten miles from the Brentwood ‘landing pad’, a news helicopter crashed on a baseball field in the San Fernando Valley in 1977. Gary Powers, the CIA U-2 pilot who survived being shot down by the Soviets in 1960 did not survive a Los Angeles power line. Since then Los Angeles, like many cities, has only grown denser.
But when the roads are jammed, dreamers look to the skies. (Although the irrepressible Elon Musk claims his Boring Company will create traffic tunnels beneath LA.) And the SureFly’s rotors are said to be much quieter than the ominous sound of a police or news helicopter hovering over the packed city.
Workhorse says the SureFly has an expected price point of $200,000, which would put it under the approximately $297,000 cost of the current Robinson R-22.
Based on certification and financial challenges, the new hybrid helicopter will probably not reach the market until 2021. But as befits true dreamers, Workhorse is already taking pre-orders for SureFly.