Hybrid Helicopter At Detroit Auto Show

Jan 17, 2019

When you go to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, you expect to see cars and trucks. This year’s show will also include a hybrid electric helicopter.

WKAR’s Scott Pohl did a Facebook Live interview with Elliot Bokeno, Technical Lead with a company called SureFly.

You can see Scott Pohl’s Facebook Live interview with Elliot Bokeno of SureFly on the WKAR Facebook page.

The auto show opens to the public on Saturday.

ELLIOT BOKENO: We’ve been developing this vehicle for about 2-½ years. What you’ve got is an internal combustion engine that drives a generator and produces electricity to power all eight independent electric motors. It’s basically a giant drone that two people can ride in.

The whole goal behind the project is to make an aircraft that’s easier to fly and safer to fly than a traditional small helicopter where there’s a lot of analog systems that all have very fine and distinct failure points that can bring them down. This craft has multiple layers of redundancy and is as easy to fly as a simple drone. We’re trying to bring aviation to the masses.

SCOTT POHL: You’ve compared it to a drone. Can anyone who flies a drone safely be able to fly this vehicle?

EB: That’s the goal. If the computer’s doing all of the heavy lifting for you and keeping you safe, doing all the stability augmentation, if you’re on the stick and you let go, it should just stay right where you left it until you give it another command.

SP: You’re here at the North American International Auto Show. Talk to me about being here at the auto show with a helicopter.

EB: It’s all about personal transport. It’s all bringing transportation into the future and doing personal transport differently. Autonomous cars are part of the rage right now in the automotive world. Layering autonomy onto something like this is definitely something that’s coming up and going to be part of the future for this craft. It’s all getting people around more easily, trying to find ways to alleviate traffic, and also being creative in how we move people around the country.

SP: Where is Surefly based?

EB: We are out of Cincinnati, Ohio, and we’re currently doing test flights with this vehicle out of Lunken Airport in Cincinnati.

SP: What’s the range of this vehicle once it’s airborn?

EB: This vehicle’s range is limited by its fuel tank since it’s a hybrid, so you’re looking at about 75 miles with two people in it, flying for about an hour and a half maybe, or with one really light pilot, over two hours.

SP: Can you recharge it at your destination? Does it use similar technology to electric cars?

EB: It does, but the battery pack in this really isn’t depleted during flight. It’s more all coming from the generator, and the battery pack acts as your equivalent to autorotation in a helicopter where if you had an engine failure the battery buffer between the generator and the load then kicks in and acts as power source so you can descend safely under power and land.

SP: I assume that you would need a pilot’s license to operate this vehicle.

EB: Right now, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) considers this a rotorcraft, and our test pilot is required to have a rotorcraft license, but part of our certification process with the FAA is to develop a system where we can certify people as an operator for this craft. They would be certified just for this craft, to operate it on their own, not for commercial use, and fly themselves at a lower barrier than just a full-on rotorcraft license.

SP: How long might it be before you expect to be on the market?

EB: We’ve entered the FAA certification process and we’re currently working through that to get this craft certified. That process should take another two to two and a half years. In another three years, we should start seeing these on the market.

SP: How will you market them? Will there be showrooms? How will people buy them?

EB: They will buy them through us. SureFly is a company of Workhorse, and we do all of our manufacturing out of Cincinnati and Indiana.

SP: What kind of a workforce do you have? How big is the workforce?

EB: There’s currently about 120 people that work for Workhorse. The parent company’s main business is electric and hybrid delivery trucks. We take a lot of that technology and have applied it directly to this since we cut out teeth there.

SP: What do you expect the sticker price to be?

EB: We’re shooting for $200,000 as the base level price. It’s all about accessibility. It’s easier to fly than a helicopter; it also needs to be cheap and accessible and affordable, to get more people in the air.

SP: Market research must be telling you there’s a place for this.

EB: There’s a huge opportunity here for not just taking market share away from helicopter manufacturers. When you have something that’s easy to fly like this, there is such an opportunity to bring in people to use these for things that right now you wouldn’t use small helicopters for, because it’s too dangerous, it takes too high of a skill level. When you get into things like precision agriculture and infrastructure inspections, search and rescue and disaster relief, you really have a lot of opportunities to use a small craft like this.