Tue | Apr 23, 2019

Skip over traffic? - Soon this 'personal helicopter' could come to crowded cities

Published:Sunday | November 25, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Vehicles caught in a gridlock.
Motorists travel along the Portmore Toll Road in St Catherine.
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LOS ANGELES:

Rick Perkins said that he spends up to two hours commuting across this metropolis in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but if he could zip to his destination by air at rush hour, he figures that the same trip would last only nine minutes.

All it would take is his own helicopter.

As cities become more congested, futurists, designers, and entrepreneurs are looking to the skies for relief.

In Perkins' case, that means putting down a $1,000-reservation to buy a 'personal helicopter' - a small, relatively inexpensive, partially electric-powered craft designed for two people taking short hops. The one that caught Perkins' eye is the SureFly, from a company called Workhorse Group.

Cincinnati-based Workhorse believes it is on the forefront of electric vertical take-off and landing technology, or eVTOL. Working with the Federal Aviation Administration, the company hopes to have its first model to customers by 2021.

Workhorse, which also makes electric trucks, may have plenty of competition when it comes to Jetsons-style transportation.

Japan's government recently launched a campaign to bring together companies and public agencies in a push to have flying vehicles aloft next decade. In the US, ride-hailing service Uber announced an initiative last year to create flying vehicles.

 

Lighter batteries

 

Like self-driving cars, the advent of personal helicopters no longer appears to be a case of if, but when.

"eVTOL technology is something we should take seriously," said James Moore, director of the University of Southern Cailfornia's Transportation Engineering Program.

The key to its success is making lighter batteries and developing regulations governing the copters' flight paths. "How quickly we respond to take advantage of the new technology will largely be a question of how quick we can define the new rules of the road, so to speak," Moore said.

Perkins, 44, who lives in Burbank, California, is such a big believer in the personal helicopter that he equipped the hillside house he built to sell in a swanky neighbourhood on Los Angeles' westside with an optional helipad. In showing the six-bedroom, seven-and-a-half bathroom house last week, the copter was perched next to the swimming pool. The house is listed for US$12 million.

"With the home of the future, why not integrate that?" he said of the pad. "In 2020, everyone is going to move in that direction."

The SureFly is being designed as unique among helicopters. It would be able to cruise at up to 70 miles per hour for more than two hours using battery power combined with a small engine. It would cost about $200,000, cheaper than many helicopters.

Where it differs most dramatically is in its appearance, looking like an oversized drone rather than a conventional helicopter. SureFly has no tail boom, which makes it about the size of a sedan and compact enough to fit on a residential landing pad. It levitates with eight small rotors mounted on four pods.

The copter won't travel as far or as fast as other rotary craft, but that's not the point.

"We sacrificed efficiency for safety and simplicity," said Workhorse Group CEO Steve Burns.

As a commuter craft, the helicopter will sport two important safety features. One is the ability for electric power to kick in if the craft needs to make an emergency landing, whirling it to earth. Second, for extra safety, there will be a "ballistic parachute" - a parachute deployed by an explosive charge - intended to work at altitudes above 100 feet.

At present, the company is conducting flight tests. Burns predicts that as something completely different, SureFly will blow past the sales of conventional helicopters in the US.

SureFly is being designed to be simpler to fly than a regular helicopter due to a computerised fly-by-wire system taking over some tasks that can complicate life for a pilot. For instance, it is being designed without foot pedals.

"It's easy and safe to fly and opens the market to skip over traffic," said Justin Jantzen, lead test engineer for SureFly.

That's a potent combination in Los Angeles, ranked top for congestion in the 2017 traffic scorecard by INRIX, a company that specialises in transportation analytics and connected car services. Los Angelenos spent an average of 102 hours stuck in traffic last year, followed by motorists in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Miami.

As great as zipping through the skies sounds, there are a lot of issues around eVTOL aircraft that still need to be resolved.

Besides air-traffic-control complications, there's a noise problem. Though they are partially powered by electricity, personal helicopters like the SureFly still could be loud enough to bother the neighbours. And while an owner may have a landing pad at home, there aren't a lot of other places that helicopters can legally touch down.

"Not today, unless you work at or are walking distance from a helipad with public access," said Joseph Caravella, a Los Angeles engineer who has been trying to develop a flying three-wheel motorcycle. A project he's been working on for years, Caravella CaravellAir, would be an open-cockpit vehicle with a propeller and folding wings. But unlike a helicopter, it would take off like a small private plane and not vertically.

Even flying a helicopter from home would require an estate that is big enough and properly zoned, which may not be easy in the densely populated cities.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Cox Automotive, sees the move towards personal helicopters going one of two ways.

One possibility is that they remain playthings of the rich, meaning that their numbers remain small and they have no real impact on traffic congestion. The other is that they catch on with large numbers of people, creating air traffic control and storage headaches.

"The personal helicopter is a powerful concept for people living in Los Angeles," he said, adding, "even if it's not realistic for most residents".