Battery-Powered Helicopter Completes History-Making First Flight – Video

OCT 9 2016 BY MARK KANE 23

Tier 1 Engineering: First flight of R44 under electric propulsion at Los Alamitos Army Airfield.

Tier 1 Engineering: First flight of R44 under electric propulsion at Los Alamitos Army Airfield.

Tier 1 Engineering announced the accomplishment of the first battery-powered full-size helicopter flight at Los Alamitos Army Airfield last month.

The modified Robinson R44 is equipped with Brammo lithium polymer batteries (700 volt, 100 amp-hour) and two Rinehart Motion Systems electric motors (three-phase permanent magnet synchronous) stacked together to provide redundancy in the event of a motor failure.

The range of the prototype for now just 20 minutes, or approximately 30 nautical miles, but the goal is to have an EV helicopter which can carry two people and three manufactured organs with a total payload weight of 600 pounds for not less than 150 minutes, including a 30 minute reserve.

“Tier 1 Engineering announced today that its battery-powered manned helicopter program achieved a successful first hover on Tuesday, September 13th, a first hover taxi on Wednesday, September 14th and a record five minute cruise flight to 400 feet altitude with a peak speed of 80 knots on Wednesday, September 21st.   The helicopter was a modified Robinson R44 test piloted by Captain Ric Webb of OC Helicopters.

Tier 1 Engineering: First flight of R44 under electric propulsion at Los Alamitos Army Airfield.

Tier 1 Engineering: First flight of R44 under electric propulsion at Los Alamitos Army Airfield.

All flights were accomplished at the Los Alamitos Army Airfield under a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category issued by FAA’s Los Angeles MIDO.  Tier 1 Engineering accomplished the project under contract from Lung Biotechnology PBC to produce an Electrically-Powered Semi-Autonomous Rotorcraft for Organ Delivery (EPSAROD).”

“The Tier 1 Engineering team designed and integrated all of the helicopter sub-systems, which included 1100 pounds of Brammo Lithium Polymer batteries, twin electric motors and a control system from Rinehart Motion Systems.  The historic five-minute flight on September 21st drained approximately 20% of the battery energy.

Lung Biotechnology PBC intends to apply the EPSAROD technology to distributing manufactured organs for transplantation to major hospitals with much less noise and carbon footprint than current technology.  Tier 1 Engineering is an aircraft design and development company with operations in Costa Mesa, California, and Victoria, Australia.”

Glen Dromgoole, President of Tier 1 Engineering said:

“I’m very pleased to achieve this historic breakthrough in aviation. Never before has a conventional manned helicopter performed a vertical takeoff, cruise and landing solely on battery power, and we are thrilled to have further achieved 400 feet altitude and 80 knots during our first full test flight.”

Tier 1 Engineering: (L-R) United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt, OC Helicopters Pilot Ric Webb, Tier 1 Engineering President Glen Dromgoole, United Therapeutics Executive Vice President Paul Mahon before a flight test at Los Alamitos Army Airfield.

Tier 1 Engineering: (L-R) United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt, OC Helicopters Pilot Ric Webb, Tier 1 Engineering President Glen Dromgoole, United Therapeutics Executive Vice President Paul Mahon before a flight test at Los Alamitos Army Airfield.

Q&A: Tier 1 Engineering’ battery-powered helicopter flight and EPSAROD program

Tier 1 Engineering: R44 engine bay with OEM Lycoming IO-540 engine being prepared for removal.

Tier 1 Engineering: R44 engine bay with OEM Lycoming IO-540 engine being prepared for removal.

What were the key specifications of the electric helicopter, such as its weights, power system and controls?
The helicopter had a Gross Weight of 2500 lbs and a BEW of 1250 lbs.  A series of 11 Brammo battery modules weighing 1100 lbs completely powered the aircraft.  The flight controls and drive train were unchanged from that of a Robinson R44, although a digital cockpit display was added for pilot management of torque and power, as well as for data logging.

What is the range of the electric helicopter?
The range of the proof-of-concept helicopter tested on September 21st is estimated at 20 minutes or approximately 30 nautical miles.  We expect to improve the endurance using higher energy density batteries, a more efficient electrical drive system, and ultimately a more aerodynamic airframe.

Can you provide us more information about the test pilot who flew the historic flight?
Ric Webb is a commercial helicopter pilot at OC Helicopters. He has 25+ years military service as a member of the air force, navy, army and coast guard.

Tier 1 Engineering: R44 engine bay following the removal of OEM engine.

Tier 1 Engineering: R44 engine bay following the removal of OEM engine.

Who led the design, build and installation effort?
Glen Dromgoole, President of Tier 1 Engineering.

Was this project in partnership with Robinson Helicopters, or any other companies?
There was no involvement with Robinson Helicopters, as we simply purchased a used R44. Design and development partners in the project include Rinehart Motion Systems and Brammo Power. Test pilot services were provided by OC Helicopters.  Lung Biotechnology PBC sponsored the project.

Is the US Government or military involved in the program?
There is no US Government or military involvement in the program other than the permission for conducting test flights at JTB Los Alamitos.

What was the size of the design & build team?
9 persons

Tier 1 Engineering: R44 engine bay with installed electric propulsion system.

Tier 1 Engineering: R44 engine bay with installed electric propulsion system.

How long did it take to design, build and install the electric propulsion system?
6 months. The design effort started in January 2016. The installation was completed in July 2016.

What was the biggest challenge?
Finding a design solution within the certified takeoff weight of 2500lbs.

What modifications were made to the helicopter?
We removed Lycoming IO-540 internal combustion engine, installed a custom mount for the electric motors and a reduction gearbox to interface with the existing drivetrain. No changes were made to drive train or flight control system. The engine bay contains the motor controllers and cooling system for the electric drive components. The battery modules are supported by a lightweight composite panel and attached to the landing gear under the belly.

Can you provide us more information about the electric motors?
There are two three-phase permanent magnet synchronous motors. The motors are stacked together and provide redundancy in the event of a motor failure. The motor assembly, which has a very a high power-to-weight ratio, was installed by one person by hand.

Tier 1 Engineering: High voltage battery system being prepared for installation.

Tier 1 Engineering: High voltage battery system being prepared for installation.

Who manufactures the motor controllers?
Rinehart Motion Systems

What type of battery system is used?
Lithium polymer battery by Brammo, 700 volt, 100 amp-hour.

Why was a Robinson R44 helicopter chosen?
The R44 helicopter has a heavy 500lb Lycoming piston engine. The retrofit with electric motors, weighing a 100lb, provided useful load for batteries.

Are there other similar electric aircraft?
There are fixed wing electric aircraft but we do not believe there is another electric helicopter in this weight class.

Your press release says EPSAROD is an acronym for Electric Powered Semi-Autonomous Rotorcraft for Organ Delivery, but are there any Semi-Autonomous features to the electric helicopter?
There were no semi-autonomous features in the EPSAROD proof-of-concept aircraft flown on September 21st.  The purpose of the aircraft is to demonstrate the feasibility of battery-powered VTOL and cruise for a manned helicopter.  Semi-autonomous avionics, navigation and controls will be implemented later in the EPSAROD development program. The ultimate goal of the EPSAROD Program is to produce electric-powered semi-autonomous aircraft that are capable of distributing manufactured organs to hospitals for transplantation.

Tier 1 Engineering: Flight path of R44 under electric propulsion at Los Alamitos Army Airfield courtesy of Google Earth.

Tier 1 Engineering: Flight path of R44 under electric propulsion at Los Alamitos Army Airfield courtesy of Google Earth.

What is the purpose of the electric helicopter?
The purpose is to demonstrate the feasibility electric propulsion; identify key areas requiring further development; obtain performance data on battery, rotor and motor system; and validate our performance predictions. It is the first phase in the development of the EPSAROD.

How many passengers can it carry?
The mission specification for the EPSAROD aircraft is to carry two people and three manufactured organs with a total payload weight of 600 pounds for not less than 150 minutes, including a 30 minute reserve.

When and where do you expect the next test flight to be?
Tier 1 Engineering has an ongoing EPSAROD test program that will extend at least through 2017, during which time a more advanced prototype aircraft will be designed and built.

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23 Comments on "Battery-Powered Helicopter Completes History-Making First Flight – Video"

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Whoa! no JP4; no 100LL avgas. Maybe it really is time to sell off the XOM.

Nice achievement…

100Ah of 700V batteries is just 70kWh of
batteries, which sounds a bit low to me.

The pre-modification 4-seater Robinson R44 is apparently only ~650kg empty weight, but still, helicopters are notorious for being very inefficient compared to fixed-wing aircraft.

Maybe there are 2 batteries?

I’m getting 154 wh/kg for the heli and the Tesla 85 kwh pack at 155 wh/kg (1200 lb)….so first brush they have same pack energy density as Tesla

Hybrid would be good, the engine fails the batteries land you safely.

No need for the weight, complexity and pollution of a hybrid. Helicopters can safely “autorotate” to land without power. Pilots are trained and required by law to fly with landing options available,

“Rate of descent is high at zero airspeed..”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autorotation

If you are not moving forward it is a hard landing.

It already has backup motors as the article clearly says. A small backup battery isn’t rocket science to install. In any case a helicopter that power-outs doesn’t reach 0 airspeed instantly unless the pilot was just hovering in place.

The motors are not the only failure mode, the controllers or battery buss can fail as well.
You could replace the 540 six with a 360 four, use less batteries and have a LOT more range.

Long way to go in the energy density requirement.

A plug hybrid would allow a smaller engine but still take off and climb well with added safety.

Lets see batteries getting 20% higher density per year and different types of battery research progressing nicely.

Won’t take that long, will it?

electric-car-insider.com

20 min flight would actually be useful for parts of training missions – heli pilots spend a fair amount of time hovering and maneuvering in close vicinity of the airport.

The big expense is fuel. Cut that 75% and you have a significant competitive advantage.

How much would fuel cost for a 20 ride in a gasoline propelled helicopter?

This helicopter would be below 10 USD per 20 min, or below 30 USD per hour, give or take.

electric-car-insider.com

16 gallons per hour at cruise, more at full throttle climb. Say 14 for low speed field maneuvers. Avgas is ~ $7 per gallon.

~100 per hour. More where fuel is more expensive (California).

It takes a while to learn how to hover, maneuver. Helicopter flight training is very expensive.

I though a battery power helicopter will be quieter.

Can they make an electric Dick Tracy hovercar? That would be useful.

Why don’t they put solar panels on the blades!?

^^ (joke)

Well if they are spinning they can gather more sunlight than staying still right?
::trolling::

Yes, we should also add a wind turbine right below the blades to recover some of that “wasted energy” and add additional micro wind turbines at the tip of each blades to generate more energy.

/Trolling continues… LOL

Just a silly idea.

Helicopter is already one of the least efficient flying devices in the air.

Now, adding a less energy dense power train and storage to it will only make it worse.

how is it silly? We’ll need electric helis eventually one day. Plenty of aerial applications that prefer a helicopter to a plane. Tours, mountain rescue, etc.

All that stuff you mentioned are the “need”.

But just because need is there, it doesn’t mean physics/cost/trade off will automatically be there to fulfill the need as you have imagined.

I want to go to the Moon in 10 minutes and come back in 10 minutes as I wish. But that aint’t going to happen in my lifetime or my kids’s lifetime…

The 540 engine with fuel and tank was maybe 600 pounds, the motors and batteries are about 1200 pounds to NO where near the range.