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.
A solution now comes from Workhorse, an Ohio-based firm. It has a passenger-carrying air taxi, called the SureFly, which combines the company’s expertise in partially automated operation, from its drone business, and in hybrid-electric propulsion, from its truck business.
The craft’s eight counter-rotating motors each drive a carbon-fiber rotor, and the power comes from a generator cranked by an internal-combustion engine. You can fly 110 kilometers (70 miles) on a tank, then refill in minutes. There’s also a small lithium-ion battery, as a backup.
“That way, if the engine should fail, you have five minutes to get down,” Steve Burns, chief executive of Workhorse, tells IEEE Spectrum. “And we even have a ballistic parachute, 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.”
SureFly will be on display at the Paris Air Show later this month, but it won’t fly—it’ll just sit there, in all its octocopter glory. It’s supposed to have its maiden flight later this year, most likely at the company’s truck factory, in Indiana.
Of course, talkin’ about tomorrow is what air-taxi firms do. None of the dozen or so startups in the air-taxi game has yet flown anyone to work. Among them are Zee Aero, established by Google co-founder Larry Page, and Uber Elevate, brainchild of Uber honcho Travis Kalanick. Just last week Toyota said it was backing a startup in a similar project; in April, Aeromobile, a Slovakian company, said it was already taking orders—for 2020 delivery.
Burns maintains that his company has the edge because it hasn’t let the best be the enemy of the good.
“Most of the other companies are going after the Nirvana solution: something that can lift off as helicopter, transition to a fixed-wing plane to fly, then retransition to helicopter to land,” he says. “But you know the Osprey [a military transport with tiltrotor technology]? A lot of people got killed, which is why we decided that Version One won’t change to a plane. So in flight it’s not the most efficient way—but this is for a short-hop application.”
The goal, Burns says, is to demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the air taxi is statistically twice as safe as taking a car to the same destination. One way to make it happen is with SureFly’s computer flight system, similar to many of the electronic safety features in today’s more advanced cars. Such a system would assist the pilot but not replace him, so you’d still need a license to fly it.
“Since it’s classified as a light-sport craft,” Burns says, “it only takes 20 hours of [pilot] training. Helicopter training is 1500 hours.”
The first SureFly pilots will probably have to stick to whatever channels in the air that get carved out by the FAA and other governmental authorities. One trick is to have the craft fly over railway tracks. Among the governments that are already drawing up regulations for such things are Dubai and the municipality of Dallas-Fort Worth, Tex.
Additional flight-control methods can always be rolled out years from now should Jetsons-style air commuters ever number in the millions. But don’t hold your breath: even the sale of a million drones last Christmas hasn’t yet darkened the skies.
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. And maybe the odd centimillionaire.
In the beginning, at least, those will be the only guys who can afford craft like SureFly. “All we’re announcing now is that it’ll sell for under US $200,000, for the initial adopters,” Burns says. “I wanted to put it at the price of a Tesla, and with manufacturing at scale—well, we’ll see.”
Philip E. Ross became a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum in June 2006. His interests include transportation, energy storage, artificial intelligence, natural-language processing, and the economic aspects of technology. He has reported on solar towers in Spain, cloud seeding in Nevada, telescopes atop a mountain in the Canaries, and robotic cars in California and Germany. He blogs mainly for Cars That Think, which won a 2015 Neal Award. Earlier in his career he worked for Red Herring, Forbes, Scientific American, and The New York Times. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.