This May Be What Real Electric Urban Air Mobility Looks Like at First. It’s Both Familiar and a Little Weird.

 In Smart Cities, Air

Almost all of the hun­dreds of urban air mobil­i­ty star­tups cur­rent­ly active around the world are pitch­ing rad­i­cal elec­tric ver­ti­cal take­off and land­ing air­craft for a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” trans­porta­tion future.

Their uncon­ven­tion­al multi-rotor designs require time-con­sum­ing test­ing, decade-long paths to cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, and the build­out of a ground and air infra­struc­ture to sup­port them. Investors are spend­ing, and will have to spend, bil­lions just to see if their busi­ness plans will work.

Palm Springs, California-based Eco Helicopters thinks there’s anoth­er route to eVTOL UAM. It’s vastly cheap­er, devel­oped by some­one else, pos­si­ble on a far short­er time­line, and looks pretty famil­iar.

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Eco Helicopters is seek­ing to bring what it calls the “EcoMax”, an elec­tri­fied ver­sion of the ubiq­ui­tous Robinson R44 light heli­copter, to the market, com­bin­ing oper­a­tional aspects of tra­di­tion­al heli­copter air taxi ser­vices with the on-demand sur­face trans­port model pio­neered by Uber UBER and others.

Basically, that means pair­ing an on-demand app with an elec­tric heli­copter. Eco Helicopters plans to launch its on-demand UAM ser­vice with a con­ven­tion­al­ly-pow­ered R44 in the second quar­ter of 2021, while the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process for the EcoMax goes for­ward.

The com­pa­ny is owned by Richard Webb, who is also the owner of its parent, Orange County Helicopters, which arranged the heli­copter flight last January on which NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daugh­ter and seven others were killed.

If all goes accord­ing to plan, the com­pa­ny will begin oper­at­ing the elec­tric R44 fol­low­ing FAA approval for a sup­ple­men­tal type cer­tifi­cate (STC) for the heli­copter. That could be in 18 to 24 months. The rel­a­tive­ly simple process of swap­ping the con­ven­tion­al gas engine which powers the R44 for a bat­tery pack and elec­tric motor — or elec­tric power unit (EPU) EPU as Eco calls it — isn’t like cer­ti­fy­ing an entire­ly new design, hence the com­par­a­tive­ly short time­line.

Eco Helicopters would oper­ate the air­craft on routes around the LA area, to and from heli­ports and air­ports, as cur­rent char­ter heli­copter ser­vices do. The added app and on-demand com­po­nent are a new wrin­kle but the com­pa­ny (a Part-135 FAA-approved pas­sen­ger ser­vice provider since 2007) would essen­tial­ly work inside the cur­rent reg­u­la­to­ry and com­mer­cial land­scape. In doing so, it could be the first eVTOL provider to market with a large­ly famil­iar and proven busi­ness model.

When Pigs Fly

The elec­tric ver­sion of the R44 that Eco Helicopters plans to use has an inter­est­ing devel­op­ment his­to­ry. The dri­ving force behind it is entre­pre­neur and United Therapeutics UTHR founder Martine Rothblatt.

Rothblatt was look­ing for a way to quick­ly trans­port organs that are being devel­oped by United Therapeutics sub­sidiary Lung Biotechnology. Lung is work­ing to genet­i­cal­ly modify pig organs so they can be mass pro­duced for trans­plan­ta­tion into humans. A heli­copter pilot in her own right, Rothblatt was cap­ti­vat­ed by the idea of eVTOL vehi­cles quick­ly trans­port­ing the organs to hos­pi­tals.

She explored the con­cept with a number of avi­a­tion OEMs and announced col­lab­o­ra­tion with Chinese eVTOL com­pa­ny Ehang in 2016 to use its small eVTOL pas­sen­ger air vehi­cles for the pur­pose. Nothing appears to have come from that but Rothblatt has also deployed undisclosed amount of capital through United Therapeutics to sup­port Beta Technologies, a Vermont-based eVTOL devel­op­er.

Beta has flown and tested a two-seat pro­to­type and is now devel­op­ing a six-seat fixed wing/­four-rotor/­push­er eVTOL design called the Alia-250 which would take on UAM and other mis­sions, pos­si­bly includ­ing organ deliv­ery for Lung Biotechnology.

In 2015, Rothblatt met Glen Dromgoole, a former Lockheed LMT and Boeing BA engi­neer who had start­ed a con­sult­ing firm, Tier 1 Engineering. The two dis­cussed Rothblatt’s organ trans­port idea and agreed that Lung Biotechnology would fund R&D for an eVTOL craft for the mis­sion.

After con­sid­er­ing an orig­i­nal tilt-rotor design, Dromgoole hit on the cheap­er, quick­er idea of elec­tri­fy­ing an already-cer­ti­fied air­craft, the Robinson R44. Rothblatt agreed and Tier 1 set about find­ing an off-the-shelf elec­tric motor, bat­ter­ies and con­troller to replace the R44’s Lycoming IO-540 six cylin­der petrol engine and fuel tank. The com­po­nents came from auto­mo­tive sup­pli­ers and by mid 2016 they were inte­grat­ed and ready for ground test­ing.

Though not ini­tial­ly planned, Tier 1’s elec­tric R44 flew at Los Alamitos Army Airfield, CA on September 13, 2016. Richard Webb was the test pilot. The com­pa­ny has since moved to in-house devel­op­ment of the motor, motor con­troller, and bat­tery pack.

Earlier this year, Dromgoole told eVTOL News that the company’s ulti­mate goal is one hour of elec­tric flight time, which would allow 40 min­utes of flying with a 20 minute reserve. Operationally, the elec­tric heli­copter is the same as a con­ven­tion­al R44 with the same per­for­mance but less vibra­tion and poten­tial­ly longer airframe/drivetrain fatigue-life, accord­ing to Dromgoole. He added that he expects more auto­mo­tive tech­nol­o­gy to trans­fer to the e‑R44.

EPUs As-a-Service

That per­for­mance and com­mon­al­i­ty pre­sum­ably held strong appeal for Richard Webb, who was not avail­able for an inter­view. His involve­ment with the Lung/Tier 1 project as test pilot is what likely led to an agree­ment to use the elec­tric heli­copter for a quasi-UAM/electric char­ter ser­vice.

Rothblatt appar­ent­ly owns the intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty for the EPU. Just prior to pub­lish­ing this piece, Eco Helicopters released a state­ment explain­ing that United Therapeutics con­tract­ed Tier 1 Engineering to devel­op the EPU and submit it for an STC for the Robinson R44 heli­copter “to be used pri­mar­i­ly for organ deliv­ery”. Tier 1 Engineering has a supply agree­ment with Orange County Helicopters, aka Eco Helicopters.

Gary Bushouse, direc­tor of busi­ness devel­op­ment for KiloWatt Aviation, the sales rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Eco Helicopters, said the com­pa­ny — which does not yet oper­ate an R44 — will finance its oper­a­tions using an EPU as-a-ser­vice model.

Potential investors would buy an R44 from Robinson and lease it to Eco Helicopters. The com­pa­ny would then remove the R44’s con­ven­tion­al pow­er­plant and swap in the EPU. Eco would oper­ate the heli­copter in its on-demand/char­ter ser­vice for the investor.

“We’re actu­al­ly sell­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for [heli­copter] owners to pur­chase an EcoMax heli­copter and lease it back to Eco Helicopters to place in the urban air mobil­i­ty ser­vice,” Bushouse con­firms. “That’s the only way you can get a hold of these, they’re not avail­able for sale to the gen­er­al public.”

Though he declined to pro­vide details, Bushouse main­tains that the EcoMax’s per-hour oper­at­ing cost advan­tage is “pretty dra­mat­ic.” If an owner decides to end the lease, the EPU goes back to Eco Helicopters which rein­stalls the gas engine at its own expense.

Kurt Robinson of Robinson Helicopters said by email he is aware of the Eco Helicopters/Lung projects and doesn’t plan to devel­op its own elec­tric-pow­ered R44 any time soon.

Forty Minutes and An App

While Eco Helicopters is pitch­ing what looks very much like a heli­copter char­ter ser­vice with an elec­tric heli­copter, the com­pa­ny claims its on-demand appli­ca­tion and oper­a­tional scheme put it in the UAM busi­ness.

“You can basi­cal­ly book an Uber from your loca­tion to the heli­port, take the heli­copter flight and have anoth­er Uber wait­ing for you when you land to take you the last mile,” Gary Bushouse says.

Other firms, includ­ing Airbus’ Voom, Blade, Uber and Los Angeles-based Skyryse have pre­vi­ous­ly paired on-demand book­ing apps with con­ven­tion­al heli­copter ser­vice.

Eco Helicopters envi­sions a fleet of EcoMax sta­tioned around the Los Angeles area at a dozen of the same heli­ports and air­ports that Orange County Helicopters cur­rent­ly serves. One or more EcoMax would be in place at each loca­tion, avail­able for on-demand book­ing via Eco’s app. According to Bushouse, a ser­vice agree­ment with Uber is in place.

The elec­tric R44’s antic­i­pat­ed 40 min­utes worth of range “will get you point to point for most places in Southern California,” Bushouse says.

That would be a stretch for a San Diego to Santa Barbara leg he admits but the com­pa­ny fore­sees traf­fic from Orange County to LAX or from Orange County to Van Nuys air­port as typ­i­cal routes. The ride to LAX would take only about 20 min­utes Bushouse posits. But given the EcoMax’ useful load (approx­i­mate­ly 600 pounds), a trio of pas­sen­gers wouldn’t be bring­ing much lug­gage.

Fast-charg­ing at each Eco Helicopters loca­tion will the­o­ret­i­cal­ly require 60 min­utes or less, making three to five flights pos­si­ble per day, Bushouse says. He would not offer an aver­age trip cost though he acknowl­edges it would be sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than an Orange County-to-LAX Uber car run. Such rides cost up to $200.

For a more direct com­par­i­son a look at pric­ing from fellow LA R44 char­ter ser­vice, Elite Helicopters (a National Helicopter Service Company) is instruc­tive. Elite lists prices for flights from Van Nuys to LAX and Orange County at $650 and $800 respec­tive­ly.

But the cost advan­tages of an elec­tric heli­copter could give Eco Helicopters a size­able advan­tage over other char­ter oper­a­tors. The com­pa­ny is “going to put them out of busi­ness” Bushouse asserts.

Time will tell if that’s the case.

Despite its some­what odd ori­gins and back­ground, the Eco Helicopters model may rep­re­sent what prac­ti­cal UAM looks like in the near to mid term. As Bushouse says, the com­pa­ny is not rein­vent­ing the wheel in either vehi­cle or oper­a­tional terms.

In a couple years you might be able to book an EcoMax UAM ride. Alternately, an elec­tric R44 might deliv­er your replace­ment pig lungs. Weird.

Forbes: Aerospace & Defense source|articles

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