Almost all of the hundreds of urban air mobility startups currently active around the world are pitching radical electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft for a “revolutionary” transportation future.
Their unconventional multi-rotor designs require time-consuming testing, decade-long paths to certification, and the buildout of a ground and air infrastructure to support them. Investors are spending, and will have to spend, billions just to see if their business plans will work.
Palm Springs, California-based Eco Helicopters thinks there’s another route to eVTOL UAM. It’s vastly cheaper, developed by someone else, possible on a far shorter timeline, and looks pretty familiar.
Eco Helicopters is seeking to bring what it calls the “EcoMax”, an electrified version of the ubiquitous Robinson R44 light helicopter, to the market, combining operational aspects of traditional helicopter air taxi services with the on-demand surface transport model pioneered by Uber
Basically, that means pairing an on-demand app with an electric helicopter. Eco Helicopters plans to launch its on-demand UAM service with a conventionally-powered R44 in the second quarter of 2021, while the certification process for the EcoMax goes forward.
The company is owned by Richard Webb, who is also the owner of its parent, Orange County Helicopters, which arranged the helicopter flight last January on which NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others were killed.
If all goes according to plan, the company will begin operating the electric R44 following FAA approval for a supplemental type certificate (STC) for the helicopter. That could be in 18 to 24 months. The relatively simple process of swapping the conventional gas engine which powers the R44 for a battery pack and electric motor – or electric power unit (EPU)
as Eco calls it – isn’t like certifying an entirely new design, hence the comparatively short timeline.
Eco Helicopters would operate the aircraft on routes around the LA area, to and from heliports and airports, as current charter helicopter services do. The added app and on-demand component are a new wrinkle but the company (a Part-135 FAA-approved passenger service provider since 2007) would essentially work inside the current regulatory and commercial landscape. In doing so, it could be the first eVTOL provider to market with a largely familiar and proven business model.
When Pigs Fly
The electric version of the R44 that Eco Helicopters plans to use has an interesting development history. The driving force behind it is entrepreneur and United Therapeutics
founder Martine Rothblatt.
Rothblatt was looking for a way to quickly transport organs that are being developed by United Therapeutics subsidiary Lung Biotechnology. Lung is working to genetically modify pig organs so they can be mass produced for transplantation into humans. A helicopter pilot in her own right, Rothblatt was captivated by the idea of eVTOL vehicles quickly transporting the organs to hospitals.
She explored the concept with a number of aviation OEMs and announced collaboration with Chinese eVTOL company Ehang in 2016 to use its small eVTOL passenger air vehicles for the purpose. Nothing appears to have come from that but Rothblatt has also deployed undisclosed amount of capital through United Therapeutics to support Beta Technologies, a Vermont-based eVTOL developer.
Beta has flown and tested a two-seat prototype and is now developing a six-seat fixed wing/four-rotor/pusher eVTOL design called the Alia-250 which would take on UAM and other missions, possibly including organ delivery for Lung Biotechnology.
In 2015, Rothblatt met Glen Dromgoole, a former Lockheed
engineer who had started a consulting firm, Tier 1 Engineering. The two discussed Rothblatt’s organ transport idea and agreed that Lung Biotechnology would fund R&D for an eVTOL craft for the mission.
After considering an original tilt-rotor design, Dromgoole hit on the cheaper, quicker idea of electrifying an already-certified aircraft, the Robinson R44. Rothblatt agreed and Tier 1 set about finding an off-the-shelf electric motor, batteries and controller to replace the R44’s Lycoming IO-540 six cylinder petrol engine and fuel tank. The components came from automotive suppliers and by mid 2016 they were integrated and ready for ground testing.
Though not initially planned, Tier 1’s electric R44 flew at Los Alamitos Army Airfield, CA on September 13, 2016. Richard Webb was the test pilot. The company has since moved to in-house development of the motor, motor controller, and battery pack.
Earlier this year, Dromgoole told eVTOL News that the company’s ultimate goal is one hour of electric flight time, which would allow 40 minutes of flying with a 20 minute reserve. Operationally, the electric helicopter is the same as a conventional R44 with the same performance but less vibration and potentially longer airframe/drivetrain fatigue-life, according to Dromgoole. He added that he expects more automotive technology to transfer to the e-R44.
That performance and commonality presumably held strong appeal for Richard Webb, who was not available for an interview. His involvement with the Lung/Tier 1 project as test pilot is what likely led to an agreement to use the electric helicopter for a quasi-UAM/electric charter service.
Rothblatt apparently owns the intellectual property for the EPU. Just prior to publishing this piece, Eco Helicopters released a statement explaining that United Therapeutics contracted Tier 1 Engineering to develop the EPU and submit it for an STC for the Robinson R44 helicopter “to be used primarily for organ delivery”. Tier 1 Engineering has a supply agreement with Orange County Helicopters, aka Eco Helicopters.
Gary Bushouse, director of business development for KiloWatt Aviation, the sales representative for Eco Helicopters, said the company – which does not yet operate an R44 – will finance its operations using an EPU as-a-service model.
Potential investors would buy an R44 from Robinson and lease it to Eco Helicopters. The company would then remove the R44’s conventional powerplant and swap in the EPU. Eco would operate the helicopter in its on-demand/charter service for the investor.
“We’re actually selling opportunities for [helicopter] owners to purchase an EcoMax helicopter and lease it back to Eco Helicopters to place in the urban air mobility service,” Bushouse confirms. “That’s the only way you can get a hold of these, they’re not available for sale to the general public.”
Though he declined to provide details, Bushouse maintains that the EcoMax’s per-hour operating cost advantage is “pretty dramatic.” If an owner decides to end the lease, the EPU goes back to Eco Helicopters which reinstalls the gas engine at its own expense.
Kurt Robinson of Robinson Helicopters said by email he is aware of the Eco Helicopters/Lung projects and that Robinson doesn’t plan to develop its own electric-powered R44 any time soon.
Forty Minutes and An App
While Eco Helicopters is pitching what looks very much like a helicopter charter service with an electric helicopter, the company claims its on-demand application and operational scheme put it in the UAM business.
“You can basically book an Uber from your location to the heliport, take the helicopter flight and have another Uber waiting for you when you land to take you the last mile,” Gary Bushouse says.
Other firms, including Airbus’ Voom, Blade, Uber and Los Angeles-based Skyryse have previously paired on-demand booking apps with conventional helicopter service.
Eco Helicopters envisions a fleet of EcoMax stationed around the Los Angeles area at a dozen of the same heliports and airports that Orange County Helicopters currently serves. One or more EcoMax would be in place at each location, available for on-demand booking via Eco’s app. According to Bushouse, a service agreement with Uber is in place.
The electric R44’s anticipated 40 minutes worth of range “will get you point to point for most places in Southern California,” Bushouse says.
That would be a stretch for a San Diego to Santa Barbara leg he admits but the company foresees traffic from Orange County to LAX or from Orange County to Van Nuys airport as typical routes. The ride to LAX would take only about 20 minutes Bushouse posits. But given the EcoMax’ useful load (approximately 600 pounds), a trio of passengers wouldn’t be bringing much luggage.
Fast-charging at each Eco Helicopters location will theoretically require 60 minutes or less, making three to five flights possible per day, Bushouse says. He would not offer an average trip cost though he acknowledges it would be significantly more than an Orange County-to-LAX Uber car run. Such rides cost up to $200.
For a more direct comparison a look at pricing from fellow LA R44 charter service, Elite Helicopters (a National Helicopter Service Company) is instructive. Elite lists prices for flights from Van Nuys to LAX and Orange County at $650 and $800 respectively.
But the cost advantages of an electric helicopter could give Eco Helicopters a sizeable advantage over other charter operators. The company is “going to put them out of business” Bushouse asserts.
Time will tell if that’s the case.
Despite its somewhat odd origins and background, the Eco Helicopters model may represent what practical UAM looks like in the near to mid term. As Bushouse says, the company is not reinventing the wheel in either vehicle or operational terms.
In a couple years you might be able to book an EcoMax UAM ride. Alternately, an electric R44 might deliver your replacement pig lungs. Weird.