Surface road transportation comes with congestion, construction and hordes of cranky commuters.
One potential workaround? Flight.
That’s the idea behind SureFly, an octocopter concept capable of carrying two passengers into remote and difficult-to-access areas up to 70 miles away.
Better known for its trucks, Workhorse Group Inc. plans to unveil the technology at the Paris Air Show on June 19.
“It’s designed to be a short-hop machine — if you can fly a drone, you should be able to fly this,” Steven Burns, chief executive of the Loveland, Ohio, company told Trucks.com.
Only a mock-up concept vehicle will be on the display podium in Paris. But Workhorse has a steel “mule” that it’s been testing in Cincinnati and plans to soon move to its production facilities in Union City, Ind.
The company hopes to have a SureFly certified for flight by the Federal Aviation Administration in the latter part of 2019. Burns said he’d like to have a human pilot trying out the carbon fiber version of the vehicle by the end of the year.
“After decades of zero market entrants, there’s a sudden flood of new big ideas,” wrote Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for aerospace and defense consulting company Teal Group, in a recent report. “If Dr. Seuss drew air vehicles, he’d be perfect for these newcomers.”
But personal air travel has many hurdles to clear, especially when autonomous or battery-powered technology is involved.
“Remarkable breakthroughs” would have to happen, particularly in “sense and avoid” systems to ensure safety, Aboulafia told Trucks.com.
“Even then, it's far from clear that any such network would ever have the critical mass needed to keep costs down to hoped-for levels,” he said.
Workhorse is keeping mum for now on SureFly’s specifications, but Burns said the final machine will be priced at less than $200,000, though initial models will be more expensive.
“The first few will maybe cost more so we can recoup some of our investment, but once it’s mainstream, we’re trying to make it the least expensive helicopter out there,” he said.
SureFly will operate with eight independent motors, each with a carbon fiber propeller, and be able to take off and land in a vertical trajectory. A gas-combustion engine will generate electricity to power the vehicle, with a battery pack acting as a backup energy source.
A ballistic parachute will be built in as a stopgap measure if both the engine and batteries shut down. Pilots will operate the early models, but Workhorse hopes to eventually have automated octocopters loaded with up to 400 pounds of payload.
“The only way we’re able to get to certification in 2019 is by having it be piloted,” Burns said. “If it was autonomous, that’s still in the land of unknowns. We’re trying to keep as many knowns in play as possible.”
Workhorse, which unveiled its drivable W-15 electric pickup truck concept in May, is positioning the SureFly as a transportation option for emergency responders, city commuters, the military or the agriculture industry.
“They come from the same DNA,” Burns said of SureFly and the W-15.
Workhorse has a variety of cargo and transportation projects. It has about 5,000 non-binding orders for the pickup, including 2,500 trucks from Ryder System Inc., the fleet management giant. Production and delivery will start in the fourth quarter of 2018.
The company also has a contract with UPS to provide more than 300 battery-electric delivery vehicles.
Workhorse and its partner, body manufacturer VT Hackney, are among five teams competing to win a contract with the U.S. Postal Service to produce hundreds of thousands of new mail delivery trucks. Workhorse and VT Hackney are developing 50 prototype vehicles for the agency to evaluate.
The company is also developing a truck-mounted, FAA-compliant drone delivery system called HorseFly for small packages.
Workhorse isn’t the only company looking to the skies as the next frontier in personal transportation.
Google co-founder Larry Page is backing a start-up called Kitty Hawk, which intends to launch a super-light pilot-driven aircraft later this year.
In February, Chinese company eHang said it partnered with Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to test its autonomous aerial passenger vehicle. The eHang 184 has performed in flight at a Dubai government test flight and in desert and coastal conditions.
Uber is also aiming high. The ride-sharing company already offers a helicopter option through its app, connecting travelers with choppers in certain cities and at high-profile events such as the Consumer Electronics trade show and the Coachella music festival.
But the company also said it has plans to have flying cars in rotation in the Dallas area and in Dubai by 2020.
So-called on-demand aviation “has the potential to radically improve urban mobility” using a network of small electric aircraft that take off and land from so-called vertistops and vertisports on parking garages, helipads and even unused land around highways, according to a 2016 Uber white paper.