The world’s first certified multicopter lifts off in Bruchsal, Germany, marking a new era for aerial transportation.
Just as smartphone technology sparked new ideas for urban transportation – like Lit Motor’s C1 two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle – drone technologies are pushing the future of personal travel to new heights.
The Volocopter VC200 made aircraft history on March 30 as the first certified multicopter to fly with a person onboard. Designed by German company e-volo, this electric aircraft gives people a glimpse into a future where, one day, ubers and taxis travel above street traffic to their next destination.
“The Volocopter is super easy to fly, silent and built with electrical simplicity compared to helicopters, which are difficult to fly, loud and mechanically complex,” said Jan Stumpf, CEO of Ascending Technologies, an Intel company that has worked with e-volo since 2013.
The Verge called the Volocotper “a dream catcher” because of its symmetrical flock of propellers fixed above an egg-shaped, two-passenger cockpit. The VC200 looks like a supersized drone-helicopter but actually it’s a multicopter, also called multirotor, that uses fixed-pitch blades and is controlled by varying the speed of each rotor.
The VC200’s emission-free electric propulsion comes from 18 propeller-spinning rotors, all powered by nine batteries. It can reach up to 62 mph in flight and uses state-of-the-art navigation technology, making it a cinch to pilot.
Simplicity and built-in safety has a lot to do with Ascending Technologies, a pioneer in drone innovation. They recently helped Intel set a Guinness World Record for the most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to fly simultaneously. These 100 dancing drones brightened the night sky with a light show choreographed to a live outdoor orchestra performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Even though VC200’s simplicity is challenged by battery and payload limits, Stumpf points out qualities and simplicities that could make this kind of multicopter the next big thing in urban transportation.
“Compared to traditional aircrafts, flying the Volocopter is so much easier for the pilot,” said Stumpf. “Anybody could fly it within minutes.”
It’s energy efficient, easy to operate and the flight control system, particularly the aspects that allow the craft to hover and land gently on its own, can be upgraded swiftly.
“It was really a sublime feeling,” said Alexander Zosel, managing director at Volocopter maker e-volo of the historic flight in Germany.
Zosel said the sensation of flying the Volocopter felt similar to piloting a remote-controlled drone from the ground—until he realized he was some 80 feet above ground.
On its maiden manned flight, the V200 reached 15 mph, but the e-volo team is determined to increase the speed up to 60 mph on follow-up flights.
The fiber-composite aircraft weighs 992lbs (450 kg) and requires about 50 kilowatts of battery power, depending on the air pressure and weather conditions.
Since the propeller blade angle on the VC200 cannot be adjusted, the amount of thrust produced depends solely on the rotation speed of the different rotors.
As Zosel controlled the aircraft using a joystick with thumb controls, Ascending Technologies’ triple redundant autopilot functions allows the Volocopter to hold its position in air whenever the pilot lets go of the joystick.
The autopilot works with brushless motor controllers, which are powered by a direct current and have electronic commutation systems instead of the mechanical brushes and commutators used in brushed dc motors. It connects to a fiber optical communication network and several adapter electronics to communicate with other components like the batteries, data displays or the safety parachute.
“Since the only rotating parts are the propellers—with two ball bearings each—there is not really much to service on this kind of aircraft,” he said.
Stumpf calls the VC200 a digital “fly-by-wire system in an electric ultralight aircraft.” Seeing the first manned flight brought to mind his experience flying 40-year-old Cessna aircrafts and a helicopter with a flight instructor.
He said that while it requires regulated air traffic knowledge and experience, the VC200 tackles the most complex and risky part of general aviation. The simple joystick controller and autopilot technologies reduce chances for human error. Its multi-redundant flight control system helps ensure precise altitude control and positioning stability.
“In general aviation, about 70 percent of all accidents are pilot errors,” he said. “The automatic functions add a layer of safety and comfort.”
He said that the fly-by-wire system learns from each flight and the collection of data can be share with other aircraft built with the same system.
The propeller system is designed to fold up and fit on a towable trailer for easy transport.
Given the need for additional flight testing, and a thicket of government regulatory issues on both sides of the Atlantic, it will likely not be until 2018 at the earliest that you can head over to an e-volo lot and kick a rotor.
e-volo is working toward certification to produce the Volocopter in large quantities. The company stated that in the next few years, the VC200 will influence air sports and air taxi services aimed at shifting individual and public transportation from streets to the sky, something NASA is exploring.
In April, the Wall Street Journal reported that a U.S. federal advisory group proposed expanding regulations for small commercial drones used to capture news video, power line inspections and other types of flights over urban areas or crowds of people.
“We’re showing regulators around the world that technologies used the right ways can help shape new rules for manned and unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Natalie Cheung, UAV product manager for Intel.
As Intel and other industry leaders work to refine regulations around the world, Stumpf is keeping his eye on new ways technology can help.
“If everybody can use safe air travel with the same or less effort as driving a car, there can be a huge impact for individual transportation,” he said.
“Of course the energy storage is still the biggest challenge and for many automatic-manned systems the rules of air would have to adapt,” he said. “But if the technology is available and demand is generated, regulators will follow.”
Photos by e-volo.
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