Gadget Freak Jr.: Manned Electric Helicopter

The “e-volo,” an electric-powered multicopter, took its first test flight in Germany last month. So called because it has 16 rotors, the 176-pound machine is powered by lithium-ion batteries.

It broke into the mainstream press Thursday with a report on MSNBC.com. A quick online search reveals that Thomas Senkel, one of the developers, posted his own video right after the flight:

Senkel and his partners, Stephan Wolf and Alexander Zosel, run a company called e-volo in Karlsruhe, Germany. Senkel writes on his site that he did all the mechanical and electrical construction on the machine, and that he’s a specialist in electric drives and ultralights. Wolf, who is listed on the site as e-volo’s CEO, wrote the code for the on-board flight computer. Zosel, a paragliding enthusiast and pilot like Senkel, handles the company’s marketing.

As Senkel writes on e-volo’s home page and in the closing titles of the video:

At the end of October, 2011, Thomas Senkel of e-volo had completed a series of unmanned tests and was ready for the first manned flight on an airstrip in the southwest of Germany. The flight lasted one minute and 30 seconds, after which [he] stated: “The flight characteristics are good natured. Without any steering input it would just hover there on the spot.”

Senkel and his team describe the technology behind the e-volo in this description, pulled from his site:

The e-volo’s sixteen propellers allow it to take off and land similar to a helicopter. Its massive plus points compared to a helicopter are the simplicity of its engineered construction without complicated mechanics and its redundant engines. Should anything go wrong, e-volo can still safely land even if up to four of its sixteen motors should fail. Flight time can last between ten to thirty minutes, depending on the payload and the capacity of the lithium batteries. With an empty weight at 80 kg (including batteries), e-volo fits into the class of ultralights… E-volo can use a safety parachute, as there are no propellers blocking the deployment area above.

The propellers create the full lift, and are also responsible for balancing the device on all three axes only by independent speed control of the motors. Unlike the rotor of a helicopter, the propellers dont´t have any pitch control and therefore no wear. These factors make the multicopter mechanically simple, with close to no maintenance necessary.

Competitively speaking, the Frenchman Pascal Chretien would apparently have a claim predating Senkel’s to being the first pilot of a manned electric helicopter. His ultralight, described here on Gizmag.com, has two main rotors and uses brush DC motors. (There’s no YouTube videos of Chretien’s machine, and the Gizmag article is copyrighted, so I’m just linking to it.)

My Take

The e-volo is an impressive example of professional-level tinkering, with the additional element of smart ultralight engineering, in terms of the light weight achieved. Whether it’s a practical device for everyday flight is another story entirely.

One can’t help but draw comparisons to the James Bond rocket pack from the 1965 movie Thunderball. In the real world, one could point to the Bell Rocket Belt, also of 1960s vintage, from Bell Aerospace.

Senkel’s verbiage about pilot safety relative to the propeller got me thinking about a propeller-powered car I saw on that cable TV car show hosted by the guy with the handlebar mustache.

A quick YouTube search revealed it’s a 1932 Helicron, which is powered by a four-cylinder, air-cooled propeller. (As is the driver — air-cooled, that is.) Below is the video. How many severed fingers this vehicle wrought is lost to history. And no, that’s not a Pilates ball beneath the e-volo’s pilot.

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