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A new entrant in the personal vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) market has been officially unveiled at the Paris Air Show, in the form of the quadcopter-style Workhorse SureFly.
The SureFly features a two-seat cabin that more closely resembles an automobile chassis than a helicopter airframe, with lift provided by eight single-blade propellers — one above and one below each of four foldable arms that reach out in an “X” from above the center of the cabin. Underneath the cabin are two simple skids.
To enable ease of operation, the aircraft’s controls are minimal, with buttons for up/down altitude adjustment, and a joystick for forward, sideways and yaw. An on-board computer will automatically adjust throttle to maintain altitude as the aircraft is maneuvered, with speed of travel controlled by how far the joystick is pushed.
The SureFly is designed to fly up to 70 miles (112 kilometers) at a speed of approximately 70 miles per hour, with an anticipated empty weight of 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) and a maximum takeoff weight of 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms).
The aircraft is being developed by Workhorse, a company that has been manufacturing electric pickup trucks for the last 10 years, and recently began designing and building carbon fiber delivery drones.
The SureFly utilizes the company’s electric propulsion and carbon fiber expertise from these products lines, with extensive use of carbon fiber in its construction and a fully redundant backup lithium battery system.
“We realized we could basically make a big drone, if you will,” Workhorse co-founder and CEO Steve Burns told Vertical. “The battery packs are light, most of our trucks have range extenders, which are gasoline engines that extend the range for when the battery is exhausted, and carbon fiber is in everything we do — so we kind of had the chops to do it.”
Burns said SureFly has been in development for about three years, with safety being the key driver in design choices.
“Every decision really comes across to first, safety — what’s the safest thing we can make; and secondly, hitting the price point,” he said.
Workhorse describes the SureFly as a hybrid aircraft, with a gasoline engine driving dual generators that provide power to the eight propeller motors. But, with safety top of mind, the aircraft has two backup batteries (each powering four motors) that guarantee five minutes’ flight for an emergency landing should the main power source fail.
According to Burns, the aircraft will be able to maintain flight on just four propellers, and, if all else fails, the SureFly has a ballistic parachute.
The aircraft’s design — with no transitional parts — was dictated by the need to keep everything about the aircraft as simple as possible, said Burns.
“I think Nirvana for everyone is [an aircraft that] goes up as a helicopter, transitions to a plane, and then goes back to a helicopter to land,” he said. “But that transitional part is hard — it makes it harder to certify, harder to build, and harder to fly, so that’s why [the SureFly] is fixed. It doesn’t make for the most efficient machine while you’re flying, but that’s how we want to get to market — with a good, safe, economic machine.”
Burns said the aircraft would be as simple to operate as a radio control unit for a drone, and said Workhorse is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish both the Surefly’s certification program and the credentials required to fly it.
“We’re hoping it can be a light-sport aircraft type of licence,” he said. “We want to keep it minimal, and we believe it’s easy enough to fly to do that.”
In terms of the aircraft’s development, Workhorse is currently testing different components, and is targeting first flight before the end of 2017, with certification by the end of 2019.
The company aims to bring the SureFly to market at a price of just $200,000 — a level Burns said may create a whole new market for VTOL transport.
“When we realized the price point we were going to be able to make this at, with much lower maintenance [costs], much easier to fly and much safer, we thought we might be able to create a new class here,” he said.
With that in mind, Burns believes the potential uses for such an aircraft are endless — far beyond the urban commuter typically envisioned by personal VTOL programs, with precision agriculture, military, and emergency responders listed as target customers.
Further down the line, Workhorse is already considering variations on the model, including a larger version and an autonomous model. “But to get it certified, it’s got to be piloted,” said Burns. “So, we want to get this one certified first, get our feet underneath us, and then determine what the next one might be.”
Workhorse has taken a full-size model to the Paris Air Show, and is encouraging visitors to get up close to it to get a clearer idea of its possibilities.
“People will see it, touch it, and look at the redundancies and look at the simple controls, and feel it more,” said Burns. “I think that will help explain . . . what some of the uses are for it.”