Back to the Future: EAA Innovation Center

By Scott Spangler on July 27th, 2017

AV3-51An AirVenture visit to the EAA Innovation Center is always worthwhile because you never know what you’ll find in its cool, air conditioned and dry interior. Some of the cooler technology was a 3D printer that was hard at work recreating what looked like the U.S. Capital Building (it had not yet started on a dome) and three opportunities to experience virtual reality on a motorcycle, in a powered paraglider, and a roadable gyroplane. (I’m going back tomorrow to try them all, if the lines aren’t too long.)

But this year it was back to the future in the post-war (that would be World War II) dream of the flying car and its cousin, the personal helicopter. Both were interesting projects, with the car drawing on existing technology. The helo was more interesting because it was a quadcopter for two, so it might have the edge on making it. What they have in common is a limited appreciation of the training and certification their customers will need to pull these things out of their garages and fly them.

AV3-80The SureFly personal helicopter is a hybrid, with four arms and eight electric motors, each one turning its own fixed-pitch prop in contra-rotation to its arm mate. A gas engine turns two generators to power the props, with a lithium battery backup that provides 5 minutes of emergency landing power. And it has a ballistic parachute. With a target price of less than $200,000, the SureFly will carry two adults (and I fit in it!) to 4,000 feet at 70 mph, with a one-hour endurance. It is made almost entirely of carbon fiber, and it weighs 1,100 pounds empty, with a max takeoff weight of 1,500 pounds.

There were no controls in the cockpit, just a computer screen, so maybe the pilot punches in the address of his destination and the SureFly does the rest. Given Workhorse’s success with its HorseFly autonomous package delivery drone, which is fully integrated with its Workhorse battery-electric delivery vehicle, it might have found a path around the pilot certification hurdle. UPS and Workhorse successfully delivered packages using this system in 2017.

AV3-112Detroit Flying Cars is making 21st century tracks on a journey started by Molt Taylor after World War II and culminated with the Aerocar’s first flight in 1949. Only six were built, and you can see one of them at the EAA Museum. Instead of folding its wings and turning them into a trailer, the Detroit Flying Car’s 26-foot wingspan telescopes in and out as needed. It’s an innovative approach to a universal flying car challenge. Another interesting aspect is that the left wing is mounted higher than the right, so in the retracted position, one is on top of the other in the car’s 16-foot-long fuselage or body.

Powered by a 100 hp internal combustion engine, the specs say it will cruise (in the air) at 125 mph for 400 miles. Made of carbon, it weighs 1,000 pounds empty and a maximum gross weight of 1,500 pounds. In an emergency, a ballistic chute is standard. It will carry two, and its wing loading is 12 pounds per square foot. On the road it’s an electric car that’s 6 feet wide and 6-foot-3 tall. It’ll run 50 miles on the battery and 400 miles with the engine recharging the battery.

The technology and innovation represented in both of these projects is inspiring, but it seems to me that until they figure out a way to surmount the hurdle of pilot certification, their efforts appear to be stillborn. If people are less than eager to invest more than six months and five figures to fly a fixed wing airplane that can be had for a fraction of the prices these projects will command, I don’t see much of a market for them. But maybe I’ve been in the sun and on my feet for too many hours this week, and I’m just not seeing things clearly. –Scott Spangler, Editor

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