The SureFly electrically powered eight-rotor, two-person helicopter made its maiden manned voyage May 3 in Cincinnati, proving the concept of a short-haul, people-moving aircraft that may open the door to a George Jetson-like future. The $200,000 rotorcraft looks like a scaled-up quadcopter sporting twice as many blades as a typical drone and triple power redundancy.
Workhorse Group CEO Steve Burns observed the liftoff and hover and proclaimed the test flight, with test pilot John Graber at the controls, a “perfect takeoff.” In a video posted to YouTube, Burns pumped his arms and shouted, “Yeah, baby,” as the aircraft hopped into the sky, and he praised the flight as “just a huge milestone for our company.”
Graber flew with one hand, and after touchdown he complimented the VTOL craft as “cutting edge, state of the art.” He predicted it would be a “very safe" and "very reliable” aircraft when it enters service.
Each prop is attached to an electric motor at the end of an X-braced arm above a wide, squarish passenger cabin with a sloped nose. Four of the motors spin on top and four more spin upside down. It has a top speed of 70 mph and a projected range of 70 miles. The SureFly’s curb weight is 1,100 pounds, and its maximum takeoff weight is 1,500 pounds. The four propeller arms fold down for storage ease.
In theory, if a motor quits working the others will take up the slack and allow for a safe touchdown, said Burns. A gasoline engine in the hybrid power system drives dual generators for the prop motors, which provide additional backup.
“If one of those [motors] should fail, you could still land,” Burns explained. “It has a generator making electricity for those motors, but if that generator should ever fail, you have five minutes of Lithium battery to get down,” plus a ballistic parachute.
Triangular braced landing skids similar to a helicopter’s gear support the passenger pod. For the test flight, long outrigger poles wound through the landing gear during initial stability tests.
Graber said the craft’s operating system was “completely different from any traditional helicopter," adding, "The pilot in this aircraft is going to tell a computer through a fly-by-wire system, ‘Take me over there,’ and the computer is going to figure out how to do that.” He compared it to self-driving cars under development that are “making the highways safer” and predicted the concept would bring additional safety to aviation.
Plans call for additional low-altitude hover tests before the test vehicle is cut loose over longer distances.
Alan Arkus, an engineer for Workhouse, previously told AOPA that initial versions of the helicopter will be manned but future versions could one day serve as autonomous air taxis. The company was also working on an autonomous drone package delivery system, he added.
“We’re going to bring aviation to people who’ve never thought about aviation before. We are about to make history,” said Burns.