First flight of electric helo imminent in France

Near Toulouse, France, a small team of engineers is about to fly the first-ever electric helicopter with a conventional architecture – one main rotor and one tail rotor.

The maiden flight of the Volta is slated for late July, after three years of design work. The single-seat aircraft has been designed as a demonstrator, as the team hopes to sell its know-how to a larger company.

Volta helicopter photo
The designers of the electric helicopter demonstrator hope it will attract the attention of a large company that could turn the Volta into a product. Volta Photo
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“Assembly of our helicopter was completed in May 2015,” Philippe Antoine, founder of the Volta project, told Vertical.

It then took another seven months to ready it for testing.

Volta helicopter photo
The maiden flight of the Volta is slated for late July, after three years of design work. Volta Photo

Engineering school Enac helped design the human-machine interface for testing, ensuring close monitoring of the electric system. Power-on trials enabled the Volta team to correct small issues, which could be found in many places, “but not at battery level,” said Antoine.

The Volta rotorcraft now has a registration and a permit to fly from the French civil aviation authority (DGAC). A pilot was found by the project’s team and the DGAC approved him. He will be ready later this month, after having finished flying for the Tour de France.

“We want to prove we can hover for 15-20 minutes,” said Antoine.

Yet, the electric system was adapted to an existing design. This is not ideal, Antoine admitted, as a cleansheet electric helicopter design would be more efficient.

The Volta helicopter has two motors, which are part of two segregated electric systems. Thanks to electric power, it is expected to be cheaper to operate. Moreover, pilot workload can be reduced, according to Antoine.

Screen shot of human-machine interface for testing purposes.
Enac, an aerospace engineering school based in Toulouse, designed a human-machine interface for testing purposes. Enac Photo

The concept is claimed to be more environmentally friendly. This is not only about reduced noise. Over an estimated 350-hour life, the Volta’s batteries save 17,000 liters (approximately 4,500 gallons) of fuel.

For energy storage, the Volta is understood to use proven lithium-ion batteries. Antoine expressed hope lithium-sulphur technology, in future, will improve safety.

Unlike a combustion engine, the performance of an electric motor is not affected by hot temperature or high altitude. However, cold does impact the battery in the starting phase. The promoters of the Volta project assert this will not be a problem for a flying school.

Antoine’s goal is to find a partner, possibly a large manufacturer, who could fund a development program for a two-seater. The main application would be found with flying schools.

Volta helicopter photo
The Volta rotorcraft now has a registration and a permit to fly from the French civil aviation authority (DGAC). Volta Photo
“An electric two-seater would be perfect for the first  10-15 hours of pilot training,” said Antoine.

The target endurance could be 55 minutes in cruise flight or 45 minutes in hover flight. The instrument panel could even replicate that of another helicopter.

To fund the demonstrator, Antoine and a partner created a company called Aquinea. It has no relationship to aerospace but has generated profit, which has been invested in Volta.

Two other electric helicopter projects made it to flight testing in recent years. Volocopter, a German company, is testing a multi-rotor design. This is not as efficient as one large main rotor, in Antoine’s view, and does not allow autorotation.

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Volta helicopter photo
The Volta helicopter has two motors, which are part of two segregated electric systems. Volta Photo

In 2011 near Aix-en-Provence, France, motor sports company Solution F and engineer Pascal Chrétien demonstrated a six-minute hover flight with a dual, coaxial main rotor and unconventional controls.

The Volta’s airframe uses that of the Microcopter, a conventional helicopter with a piston engine. Antoine designed it as a student, in the 1990s. It first flew in 2004. However, due to instability in the two-stroke engine, the project was put in standby mode.

Antoine later realized that recent progress in electric power could enable it to be a suitable platform – albeit not optimal – for installing a motor, batteries and accompanying systems. Partners were found in France to supply components.

11 thoughts on “First flight of electric helo imminent in France

    1. Mike,

      The Firefly never left the ground. The project was put on hold (VERTIFLITE May/June 2012), according to Chris Van Buiten (Vice President, Technology and Innovation Research and Engineering, Sikorsky Aircraft).

      Solution F’s electric helicopter made world’s first on August 12th 2011 ( http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/First-electric-helicopter ) and then E-Volo flew their Volocopter on October 21st, 2011. 2011 was a prolific year for electric aviation !

      More than a world’s first, which has already been established, Antoine’s machine will need to demonstrate flight envelope expansion, with flights of 40 minutes or more, as announced.

      Regards.

      Pascal Chretien

      tetraerotech.ch

  1. As the designer, builder and test pilot of Solution F’s electric helicopter that made world’s first in August 2011, I would like to congratulate Philippe Antoine for his work and persistence during the past 3 years as well as wishing his pilot a successful first flight.

    It is great to see electric propulsion applied to rotary wing aircrafts taking off.

    Pascal Chretien

    tetraerotech.ch

  2. fly an electric helicopter with the technology we have in 2016 definitly the past. the only viable technology for the future is hybrid technology. all this is a waste of time and energy or labor for grants from the French and European public funds.

    Mathieu

  3. Mike,

    The Firefly never left the ground. The project was put on hold (VERTIFLITE May/June 2012), according to Chris Van Buiten (Vice President, Technology and Innovation Research and Engineering, Sikorsky Aircraft).

    Solution F’s electric helicopter made world’s first on August 12th 2011 ( http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/First-electric-helicopter ) and then E-Volo flew their Volocopter on October 21st, 2011. 2011 was a prolific year for electric aviation !

    More than a world’s first, which has already been established, Antoine’s machine will need to demonstrate flight envelope expansion, with flights of 40 minutes or more, as announced.

    Regards.

    Pascal Chretien

    tetraerotech.ch

    1. Hello Pascal,
      It’s a real pleasure to get your comments by this unexpected way.
      We are preparing the maiden flight of Volta. Obviously, it won’t be the very first flight of an electric helicopter. This premiere is yours. It would be the first demonstration of the electric flight of a fully electrically-driven conventional manoeuverable helicopter. Our premiere is also to have been officially registered and authorized to fly by the French Authorities, few months before Volocopter in Germany.
      About the endurance, we never considered 40 minutes of hovering flight with this machine which uses the same generation of batteries than your coaxial in 2011. We expect doing much better with our next project based on another platform and advanced cells chemistry.
      I would be happy to have some news from you in private !

      For the other members of this community: Volta is a private initiative and Aquinea never called for any public financial support, neither asked for sponsoring nor crowdfunding… This project is driven by passion and only, Pascal knows what I mean.

      Regards,

      Philippe Antoine
      Aquinea

      1. Hi Philippe,

        Those guys came out of nowhere and have set a serious milestone: http://www.www.verticalmag.com/press-releases/historic-battery-powered-helicopter-flight-los-alamitos-army-airfield/
        Their flight is quite short (comparable to ours in fact), however, this is a “conventional” helicopter and by doing a circuit (which we were not allowed to), they definitively blew up our record. Good on them and Godspeed electric propulsion. Technology is moving ahead, at last !

        All the best.

        Regards.

        Pascal.

        Regards.

        Pascal.

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