Ohio-based American Workhorse Group is a relative newcomer to the motor vehicle manufacturing business. It has been producing a range of commercial vehicles in the US since 1998 and new electrically powered commercial vehicles since 2015.
Workhorse’s trucks and vans have been built around functionality, with what appears to be little consideration for how they look. Thankfully, the Workhorse Group’s latest project does not appear to share the aesthetic qualities of its trucks and vans. On August 13, in a press release filled with hyperbole, the company announced its intention to enter the eVTOL market with a hybrid-electric light “helicopter” that it calls the SureFly.
The SureFly incorporates a carbon-fibre structure with a two-person cabin beneath a four-armed electric rotor system, and looks a little like a giant DJI Phantom “drone” mounted on top of a shortened and squared off EC135 cabin (but without a tail boom).
A petrol-engine sits in the “fuselage” behind the occupants to drive generators that provide power to the eight electric motors and propellers/rotors—one each above and below the ends of each of the four arms.
The SureFly also has two back-up battery packs capable of providing five minutes’ emergency landing power in the event the generator system fails. In addition to the back-up battery safety, the design also incorporates a ballistic parachute as a last-ditch safety device. With full computer and electrical system redundancy, safety should not be an issue, should the SureFly eventuate as a certified aircraft, especially as it has no transitional parts (wings, tail, tail rotor etc) and no asymmetric concerns, making it very simple to fly.
In its August 13 press release, Workhorse claims to have begun FAA type certification for the SureFly in the US—which makes it sound as if the certification is a mere formality.
While it is inevitable that this kind of technology will find its way eventually into mainstream aviation (and aviation authorities around the world are already working through the many implications of this and similar technologies), the reality of certification is likely to be anything but a formality. It begs a number of questions, not least of which being, what will the SureFly be certified as? Is it an aeroplane, a helicopter, or an entirely new class of machine that has yet to have a set of rules and standards prescribed?
Workhorse does not say whether certification would be under existing FAR or, if so, which regulation. As things stand, it doesn’t appear to fit within either current FAR 23 or 27, so one has to question whether Workhorse’s claim to have “begun type certification” simply means they have made a first approach to the FAA to ask, “What now?”
Type certification (especially for any “first of type”) is a lengthy and complex process for even a “conventional” aircraft, and one might fairly assume that—depending on the FAA’s eventual definition of the SureFly—if it represents a new class of aircraft, the process is bound to be significantly longer and more complex.
This is not to knock or decry Workhorse’s efforts; if the SureFly lives up to the company’s expectations and marketing promises, it could establish an exciting new field of aviation. However, established players in the aviation industry might suggest that if Workhorse wants to make millions with the SureFly, they had better have billions to begin with.
Workhorse predicts the SureFly will have a range in the vicinity of 70 miles, a top speed of 70 mph, a ceiling of 4000 feet, and a useful load of something like 400 lbs.
At this stage, Workhorse is claiming the SureFly will sell for less than US$200K, which seems like good value.
Whether we see aircraft like the SureFly enter mainstream aviation, and whether they are seen as passing fads or usher in a whole new era of flight, this writer sees a safe future for commercial helicopter operators for the long-foreseeable future. With no viable alternatives on the horizon able to provide the power, range, speed or endurance of conventional aircraft, aircraft like the SureFly are unlikely to threaten commercial operations for at least as long as petroleum energy remains easily sustainable.