Schleicher’s Sustainable Flight for Two

Alexander Schleicher Segelflugzeugbau (sailplane maker) has been crafting high-performance soaring craft since its inception in 1927.  Their latest creation, a two-seat, 20-meter (65.6 feet) span motorsegler, the ASG32 El, includes a 25 kilowatt synchronous motor driving a Schleicher-designed 1.55 meter (5 feet) retractable propeller.

 

ASG32 in flight with 25 kW sustainer (retriever) motor raised, optional solar panels on motor compartment doors

The motor is a “home help” device, a sustainer motor to keep the ASG 32 El aloft once it is launched by a winch or by being pulled by a towplane.  The motor does not allow for self-launching.  Its low power, coupled with the airplane’s clean design, does enable a 1.3 meter-per-second (255 feet per minute) rate of climb.  The aircraft’s battery is sufficient for 20 minutes of all-out power or 100 kilometers (62 miles) of “sawtooth” flight, short climbs followed by longer glides, even with a full load of two pilots.

ASG32 El single lever motor control

A single control level raises the motor and propeller into operating position, and when pushed further, turns the motor on and controls the speed of the motor.  Similar to the Lange Antares single-lever control, the unit simplifies operation, adding to flight safety.  A specially designed battery management system (BMS) monitors and controls the 1,200 lithium-ion cells housed as a battery pack in the motor compartment.

Battery pack compresses 1,200 cells, BMS into space within slender fuselage

The aircraft and its power system (a first for Schleicher) were designed by a “Schleicher-led consortium including the University of Kassel, the University Baden Württemberg at Mosbach and companies with expertise in battery technology was created for the development process. The propeller and control unit were also developed with expert specialty firm,” according to the company.

Simple instrumentation, much like that on FES-powered sailplanes, helps pilot see RPM, battery temperatures, state of charge

Recently approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the first electric sailplane with a “retriever” unit to achieve that honor, the ASG 32El also achieves the goals of its makers.  “The primary goal in the development of the electric sustainer was to ensure a maximum operational safety in the air and on the ground. With its simple operating system and overall battery concept this requirement has been achieved in the ASG 32 El.”

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MAGiCALL, a California-based firm whose slogan, “Innovative Magnetics to Power Your Products,” covers everything from aircraft to medical applications, has introduced a combined MAGiDRIVE™ integrated motor and controller line of products.  These are of particular interest for electric aircraft designers, since the company has been picked to supply motors to the Airbus A3 Vahana project.

MAGiDRIVE motors combine motor and controller in one compact, light unit

Whatever else they may accomplish, the many multi-rotor sky taxis will create a demand for a great number of motors, controllers, and battery packs.  16 on every Volocopter, eight to 16 on every Ehang, and eight on every Vahana will promote mass production, perhaps leading to a Model T moment where such technology becomes universally affordable.

What Ford did for automobiles, most of the current crop of sky taxi designers are attempting for the democratization of flight.  They could start with Ford employee Bill Stout’s motto, Simplicate and add more lightness.”  He, by the way, designed the Ford TriMotor, the first certified airliner in America, and later had dreams of an early sky taxi – the Aerocar.  Although Stout’s vision never came to fruition, Molt Taylor adopted the name for his own successful machine.

The idea and the ideals are not new, as shown in this Modern Mechanix article from 1943

MAGiCALL has one approach to making Stout’s idea happen, combining motor and controller in one compact unit.  Melding the two air-cooled units eliminates the weight of connecting cables and the possibility of issues resulting from long cable lengths.  ABB’s PowerPoint presentation details the challenges involved.

Essentially, the only thing left for the designer to do is figure out how to route battery cables to the combined unit and sort out how to control their speed.  This can be done by a variety of means, including “CAN, RS485, PWM, Ethernet, and more.”  The motor can be controlled for “torque, speed, power, and more, ” and run as a motor or generator in both directions.  (MAGiCALL advertises their use as generators on wind turbines.)

Mechanix Illustrated showed sky taxis as they might have been in 1943. Modern improvements make for smaller garages

MAGiDRIVE claims to be light and powerful, their 75M example motor with an outside diameter of 11 inches and length of five inches weighing 11 kilograms (24.2 pounds) and exerting up to 130 Newton-meters (95 pound-feet) of torque and putting out up to 60 kilowatts (80.4 horsepower).

The motors have hollow shafts to allow variable pitch propellers and pitot tubes, and provide integrated temperature, vibration and health monitoring.

Units range from 4.1 inches in diameter to 18.4 inches, with nothing over 7.6 inches long (thick?).  They can produce from six up to 300 maximum kW (eight to 402 hp.), with up to 1,000 Nm (738 pound-feet) of torque.  Weights range from 0.7 to 49.5 kg. (1.54 to 108.9 pounds).

With the potential that these motor/controllers will be mass-produced to satisfy the sky taxi market, prices could be agreeably low in the future.  As more Experimental Aircraft Association members turn toward electric flight, such systems will be in great demand.  We seem to be on the verge of a new era in green aviation.

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An Executive Perk Unlike Any Other

Chinese firm Ehang staged a demonstration of great confidence in its 184 (one passenger, eight motors/rotors, and four arms) autonomous flight vehicle.  The CEO and all executive members of the firm, and Guangzhou government officials got rides, with many giving thumbs-up signs during their trips.

Hu Huazhi, Founder and CEO of Ehang, fills us in on numbers.  Over 150 technicians and engineers worked more than 1,000 days and ran over 1,000 test flights to bring the Ehang 184 to its current level of trustworthiness.  Flights held at the Ehang test flight site in Llanyungang City show the founder using stick and rudder to control the machine.  Xiong Yifang, cofounder and CMO for Ehang, flew with great enthusiasm while Huazhi notes a previously unannounced two-seater has carried the heaviest passengers, including Zhong Hang, Vice President, and Richard Liu, Chief Financial Officer – with up to 210 kilograms (462 pounds) combined weight.  A lighter VP, Tang Zhejung, gave a V for Victory (or peace?) sign on her flight.  Note that the Ehang 184’s net (empty) weight is cited as 260 kilograms (572 pounds).

As noted above, the 184 was not the only star of this well-choreographed show.   A two-seat model (the 2168 – two passengers, 16 motors/rotors, eight arms?) makes its appearance, interspersed with flights of the 184.  The machine stays right side up, although the intrepid test pilot vigorously tries out pitch and roll controls along the otherwise stable flight path

Ehang and Huawei Seek Aircraft (and Airspace?) Control

This brings up the question of aircraft (and airspace) control.  Onboard sensors and systems can fly the Ehang in force 7 gales, according to the manufacturer and shown with images of the eight-rotor craft being tested in ostensibly force 7 winds (about 5:30 on the video).  The Beaufort Scale lists Force 7 winds at 28 to 33 knots (32.2 to 38 mph), more than enough to push the average Cessna past its controllable landing speed.  Ehang explains the pod has shown itself able to handle high and low temperatures as well as such high winds.

Beyond aerodynamic control, Ehang has a large control center to monitor and possibly control the flight of their otherwise autonomous vehicle.  How much will the pilot on board (if provided with a stick and rudder pedals) be able to provide total control of the machine?  Will ground control have ultimate authority, or will autonomous, pre-programmed controls guide the aircraft?  Certainly Huawei, which makes smartphones, servers, routers and other connected communications devices and systems has a major part in this. Since Ehang features its two-story control screen as a major component in its tests, what are the protocols for each of the elements involved?

These are questions that will need to be answered for such aircraft to gain certification worldwide, or in individual countries – each with a unique set of rules and restrictions.  The regulatory constraints may be more difficult to overcome than the physical ones.

Ehang seems to be doing a great job of making a machine in which even its executives are comfortable flying.  Can they, and their many competitors, be as successful with national and local governments?

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People waste billions of hours sitting on roads worldwide each year. We envision a future where commuting by eVTOL (electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing) is a safer, faster, and cost-competitive alternative to ground transportation. We have spent the last ten years developing the technologies that have made our full-scale technical demonstrator possible and are now ready to build a commercial version of the aircraft. We’re excited to have attracted the backing of leaders in auto manufacturing, data intelligence, and transportation sectors.

—Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt (Green Car Congress)

A Knack for Making and Attracting Money

That backing came February 1st in “funding from investors including Intel Capital, Toyota AI Ventures, JetBlue Technology Ventures, and Capricorn Investment Group, a prominent backer of Tesla and Space Exploration Technologies,” according to Bloomberg News.

JoeBen Bevirt has been thinking boundless thoughts for most of his life, based on a highly creative output that includes GorillaPod flexible photographic tripods, energy-gathering kites, electric motors, and advanced aerodynamic designs.  From his sylvan home above the California coastline, he has expanded his work into the currently hot sky taxi realm.

Working Toward Sky Taxis

This is nothing new for him.  He crafted motors for the Monarch Personal Air Vehicle (PAV), a planned single-person commuter craft, seven years ago.  The eight Joby motors, mounted on a pivoting wing based on the Windward Performance SparrowHawk sailplane, would have taken its passenger 100 miles for $1.00 of electricity.

More recently, his company has fielded a two-seat, 12-motor commuter, a drone with folding propellers, and motor, nacelle, and wing work for NASA’s X-57 Maxwell.  The small lift motors are designed to maintain airflow over the wings, while the two “cruise” motors provide thrust for forward flight and economical cruising.  The cruise motors are currently being tested on NASA’s Airvolt test stand at the Armstrong Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base.

Undisclosed is the Word of the Day

In a Bloomberg News article about Joby’s recent acquisition of $130 million in venture capital, Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone were allowed to visit but not photograph, JoeBen’s undisclosed airfield somewhere between Monterey and Santa Barbara.  They discretely report on the appearance of the airplane: “It’s an exotic-looking white aircraft with numerous propellers. (Bevirt agreed to the visit only on the condition that physical specifics remain unpublished.) He calls it an air taxi. “This is what I have been dreaming about for 40 years,” he says. “It’s the culmination of my life’s work.”

Blloomberg’s illustration for Joby assembly line, with artistically-licensed robots welding probably non-metallic craft that look like the S2

Although they didn’t bring back footage or other images, someone at Bloomberg illustrated the article with a production line for aircraft that look similar to Joby’s S2.  Technical papers by JoeBen, Alex Stoll and others show common designs for VTOL craft and low-drag nacelles that look remarkably like those on the Maxwell and S2.  This underlies Joby’s reference to 10 years’ of ongoing research.

Note the similarities in scenarios and animation in the two videos of the Monarch and S2, a great deal like the similarities one sometimes sees in video games.

Reporters Witness a Flight Demonstration

Mirroring Autonomous Flight’s test flights with their Y6S on the south coast of England, Joby allowed the Bloomberg reporters to watch a test flight of the undisclosed airplane at its undisclosed airport location.

“We were the first two reporters to see a demo of the prototype, named Rachel after the women several of its creators used to date.  (They were all named Rachel?) The pilot managed a vertical takeoff, 15 minutes of flight in a 15-mile loop, and a safe landing.  (Italics your editor’s.)  Perhaps that’s why the reporters added this note: “And though Intel owns a stake in a German air taxi startup called Volocopter GmbH, Wendell Brooks, president of Intel Capital, says Joby “is very far ahead relative to all the other things we’ve seen.”

Joby Executive Chairman Paul Sciarra, a co-founder of Pinterest, explains that Joby seeks to build a four-passenger, one-pilot machine that will cruise 150 miles on a single charge, be 100 times quieter than conventional helicopters on takeoff and landing, and “near silent during flyovers.”

Cementing the Future

Joby has one of four competing visions for repurposing an abandoned cement plant in Davenport, California, about 11 miles north of Santa Cruz.  Their presentation for approval of their plan can be seen here.

Along with this potential acquisition, Joby plans on hiring 100 additional employees (to augment the 135 already on board) with skills essential to their enterprise.  Going from creating flexible tripods to crafting motors and innovative aerodynamics with NASA, Joby seems destined for some remarkable achievements in future flight.

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Zach Lovering, Project Executive for Airbus subsidiary A3 reports, Today marks a historic day for Airbus, A³, and the Vahana team. We can now announce our successful first flight. At 8:52AM on January 31, 2018 in Pendleton, Oregon, our full-scale aircraft, dubbed Alpha One, reached a height of 5 meters (16 feet) before descending safely. Its first flight, with a duration of 53 seconds, was fully self-piloted and the vehicle completed a second flight the following day. In attendance was the full Vahana team, representatives from the FAA, and A³ leadership, all coming together to witness this historic accomplishment.”

Hovering Autonomously

With canards built in Portland, Oregon at Flighthouse Engineering LLC, the tandem-winged, eight-rotor, 745 kilogram (1,642 pound) machine has a wingspan, or width, of 6.2 meters (20.3 feet), a length of 5.7 meters (18.7 feet) and a height of 2.8 meters (9.2 feet).

Vahana in hover mode under fully autonomous control

Vahana is one of two Airbus VTOL urban transport options, the Pop.Up design combining ground and air transport in a single design.  Pop.Up can be used as a self-driving car, or placed on a rail platform for ground use.  A detachable four-rotor system can lift it for flight use.  Vahana is a more single-purpose device.

Airbus has its own competing vision for future flight, Pop.Up

New Motors

The prototype that flew this week at the Pendleton UAS Range seems to use liquid-cooled Emrax motors from Slovenia sporting redundant controllers.  Airbus announced its intention, though, to partner with MAGicALL, a California-based company that designs and manufactures motors, controllers and other electronic controls on a custom basis.

Vahana on test pad shows its eight motors with cooling, associated electronics

Lovering announced, “Today we are celebrating a great accomplishment in aerospace innovation. . In just under two years, Vahana took a concept sketch on a napkin and built a full-scale, self-piloted aircraft that has successfully completed its first flight. Our team is grateful for the support we’ve received from A³ and the extended Airbus family, as well as our partners including MTSI (Modern Technology Solutions Inc., a consulting firm) and the Pendleton UAS Range.”

Vahana appeared on a napkin just three years ago

With over 50 employees working on the aircraft in Silicon Valley, and subcontractors crafting things like the canard in Oregon, Vahana is a speedily-executed project that shows the power of a well-finance large institution to bring a product to market.  Airbus will have a great deal of competition, as shown in this chart from Deloitte, a consulting firm involved with taxes, risk management and high tech consulting to 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

Deloitte’s chart of the current development of sky taxis

As the flight test team progresses to transitions from hovering to forward flight, Rodin Lyasoff, A³ CEO and former Project Executive of Vahana predicts, “Our focus now is on celebrating the work of the tireless Vahana team while maintaining the momentum of this accomplishment.”  We can hope that A3 succeeds in its mission to “democratize personal flight and answer the growing need for urban mobility by leveraging the latest technologies in electric propulsion, energy storage, and machine vision.”

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Cuberg, a battery startup “Founded based on graduate research work in the materials science department at Stanford,” includes individuals who worked with Yi Cui at the school.  They promote their safe electrolyte as a key element in their new battery.  “Our highly stable proprietary electrolyte enables the use of high-voltage cathodes and lithium metal anodes in a safe and reliable format.”

Their video shows the relative safety of that premise.  It starts, though, with a quick review of their manufacturing techniques, which are similar to standard methods used in most batteries.

The team, headed by Richard Wang, “Entrepreneur and Battery Scientist,” includes co-founder Mauro Pasta, an Associate Professor at Oxford University.  His Linked In profile includes this note: “Cuberg is an energy startup company developing a new generation of safer and higher energy batteries based on a high-performance electrolyte technology. When combined with our unique cell design, our batteries deliver not only improved energy but also greatly enhanced shelf life, calendar life, and stability at elevated temperatures. Our technology will power the portable electronics of the future and bring about electric vehicles with improved affordability and range.”

Cuberg battery structure allows use of standard manufacturing techniques, tools

Their innovative electrolyte (which the company promotes as a drop-in replacement for existing chemistries), prototype manufacturing in commercial formats, and ability to resist flammable self-destruction, enabled them to obtain funding from the high tech accelerator Cyclotron Road, and their good energy density (a reported 280 kilowatt-hours per kilogram) possibly helped unlock additional funding from Boeing’s Horizon X Ventures.

CNBC reports, “The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Boeing spokeswoman Megan Hilfer said the investment was typical of Boeing HorizonX’s minority equity investments ‘that span the single millions up to the low double-digit millions’ of dollars.”

One can see the relationship between intrinsically safe, lightweight batteries and Horizon X projects such as Zunum.  Richard Wang told CNBC.  “’Currently, battery technology is still heavy.  You need to take a leap to the next generation.’”

Cuberg battery compared to other energy storage devices.  These batteries will initially be costly, but useful in applications where reliability and safety are most important

But Steve Nordlund, vice president of Boeing HorizonX, sees the startup’s product as promising.  “Cuberg’s battery technology has some of the highest energy density we’ve seen in the marketplace, and its unique chemistries could prove to be a safe, stable solution for future electric air transportation,”

Cuberg feels its products can replace conventional lithium batteries in any application where light weight and high energy density are important.  Targeting “a specialty battery market serving the oil and gas industry where energy density, safety, and high-temperature stability are critically important,” Cuberg sees a future in “the creation of entirely new classes of devices and products. Flying cars, here we come.”

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For transportation, two types of fuel cells come to mind: PEMs or SOFCs.  A third variety, DCFCs, may have a place in transport systems, and may have advantages in using “dirty” fuels.

PEM (Polymer Electrolyte Membrane – or Proton Exchange Membrane) cells use a solid polymer as an electrolyte and porous carbon electrodes containing a platinum or platinum alloy catalyst. They need only hydrogen, oxygen from the air, and water to operate. They are typically fueled with pure hydrogen supplied from storage tanks or reformers.

SOFCs (Solid Oxide Fuel Cells) use a hard, non-porous ceramic compound as the electrolyte. SOFCs are around 60% efficient at converting fuel to electricity. In applications designed to capture and utilize the system’s waste heat (co-generation), overall fuel use efficiencies could top 85%.  They operate at high temperatures (1,000° C or 1,830° F).

Both PEMs and SOFCs use hydrogen, which must be extremely pure and is therefore often produced at high costs.  What if a cheaper fuel were able to be consumed in fuel cells?

Dong Ding in Idaho National Laboratory

Researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory’s Energy Innovation Laboratory may have a plausible answer.  DCFCs (Direct Carbon Fuel Cells) can burn solid carbon, such as coal and biomass, and burn it in a way that makes carbon capture easier.  Apparently, we can choose between making hydrogen for fuel cells, using processes that are often not totally clean, or we can clean thing up post-consumption.

Researchers report that “Innovations in the anode, the electrolyte and the fuel allow the fuel cell to utilize more carbon, operate at lower temperatures and show higher maximum power densities than earlier direct carbon fuel cells….  Innovations in the anode, electrolyte and fuel… “Allow the cell to utilize about three times as much carbon as earlier…cells.”  Fuel can include coal, coke, tar, biomass and organic waste.

Researcher Dong Ding reports, “. “You can skip the energy-intensive step of producing hydrogen,” making the DCFCs potentially more efficient than conventional hydrogen fuel cells.

To make their design more efficient than earlier DCFCs, the research team designed a fuel cell capable of operating at lower temperatures – below 600° C (1,112° F).  Earlier cells ran at 700 to 900° C (1,292 to 1,652° F),  This requires such cells to be made of expensive materials that can handle the extreme temperatures.

The fuel cell injects finely-ground solid carbon via an airstream into the cell.  The fuel flows over a doped cerium oxide and carbonate electrolyte, both highly conductive materials.  The team’s anode is a 3-D ceramic textile that “interlaces bundles of fibers together like a piece of cloth. The fibers themselves are hollow and porous. All of these features combine to maximize the amount of surface area that’s available for a chemical reaction with the carbon fuel.”

Their fuel is a “fluidlike” composite of solid carbon and carbonate, which flows easily into the interface.  “The molten carbonate carries the solid carbon into the hollow fibers and the pinholes of the anode, increasing the power density of the fuel cell,” according to researchers.

It’s hard to distinguish the fuel cell as such: it looks like small paper-thin piece of green ceramic (like a watch battery according to the INL), about 10 centimeters per side.  Each layer can produce about 0.2 Watts per square centimeter at around one Volt, so a 10-centimeter square should be able to generate about 20 Watts.  Stacking the cells would of course increase output.

The results appear the Volume 30, Issue 4, January 25, 2018  edition of the journal Advanced Materials.   The article, “A High-Performing Direct Carbon Fuel Cell with a 3D Architectured Anode Operated Below 600 C,” is authored by Wei Wu, Yunya Zhang, Dong Ding, and Ting He.

According to BizMojoIdaho.com, industry has shown an interest in the research.  “Ding and his colleagues are partnering with Salt Lake City-based Storagenergy, Inc., to apply for a Department of Energy Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)-Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Funding Opportunity. The results will be announced in February 2018. A Canadian energy-related company has also shown interest in these DCFC technologies.

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Heathrow London to Charing Cross in 12 Minutes

Autonomous Flight designs and manufactures autonomous passenger drones (APD), and is based in both the United Kingdom and the United States.  Founded by Martin Warner, the company joins a growing number of entrepreneurial groups combining drone hardware and “software-based technologies” to provide rapid point-to-point transportation.

Warner envisions a wide range of drone-based, battery-powered air vehicles for both commercial and private use, which he calls the “new gold rush in transportation and aviation”.  Autonomous Flight’s website promotes the familiar arguments for rising above gridlock.  The firm’s commercial notes the average American commuter spends 3.5 hours trapped in traffic every month.  The answer is the Y6S, a two-passenger drone that will whisk you from London-Heathrow to Charing Cross Station in only 12 minutes, cruising at 300 to 1,500 feet above terra firma at 70 mph.  Either trip would take about an hour by car.

Martin Warner, the “serial entrepreneur” some have dubbed Britain’s Elon Musk, holds forth in a BBC interview.

He provides more detail and several surprises in another interview with Sky News, sandwiched between other stories in this video between the 5:38 to 10:20 marks.

Interviewer Gemma Evans, “ ‘Asked how he would manage commuters’ safety concerns about flying in a vehicle without a pilot.’”

“’There are multiple flight redundancies which is multiple uses of technology to ensure that if there is a single point of failure the aircraft will either land or fly you to where you need to be,’ [Warner] said.”

Questioned about cyberattacks, something not normally brought up in promoting these types of machines, Warner explained, “These are serialized, they’re tracked, we’re not flying over oceans, they’re flying short distances.

“You have to assume that you are one step ahead in terms of encryption and constantly reviewing that.”  That assumption bothers this editor more than just a bit.  Very large online entities in this country have recently admitted not being one step ahead or hackers for several years, for instance.  There’s a large gap between having your tablet implode and your motors go silent while descending onto the local Whole Foods.

Would a $25,000 Y6S be the privately-owned commuter plane of the future?

Surprising in the Sky News report is that flight tests without passengers have already taken place in southern England.  Even more surprising, Warner floated a price that definitely gains attention.  He thinks he can put the Y6S in the air for a purchase price of around $25,000, or £20,000.   Given that the average new car costs $31,400 (according to Thomas King, a vice president at J.D. Power and Associates), this sounds like the ideal answer to gridlock.  It will be fascinating to see if Autonomous Flight can achieve this, since competitors seem to be projecting much higher prices for similar machines with similar performance.

This is not the end-all/be-all for Autonomous Flight, however.  According to SkyGuys.ca, “Along with the Y6S, they are also working on the Y6S Plus which seats four people and the AS1, an eight-seater aircraft that is designed to provide transportation for larger groups.”

With power players such as Uber pressing forward on creating a network of autonomous sky taxis, and actual machines being tested in Dubai, Germany, and now England, regulatory agencies will be pressed themselves to resolve the myriad safety and control issues that will be upon us.

Sky News explained, “As long as regulatory requirements can be met, Martin says we’ll see passenger drones above UK cities within as little as five years.”

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When You Wake Up Hungry – Fly to the Bakery!

Electric-Flight.eu reports on three Germans who made a bathtub fly – and used it to fetch pastries.  As the website reports, “The Real Life Guys” are two Darmstadt students and one DB train attendant who shook up the media last week. They connected a bathtub with an aluminum scaffolding and six 9.6 [kilowatt] motors (€1 065 or about $1,191[each]) from the model building sector to 42-Volt batteries and blew it up.”  “Blew it up” means lifting it skyward on the power of what look like six Hacker model airplane motors, capable of putting out 15 kilowatts (20.1 hp) each for 15 seconds.  The 9.6 kW (12.9 hp) output cited in the Electric-Flight article seems realistic for sustained output, and the €1,050 price on Hacker’s website seems to confirm that this is the motor used.

Six Hacker Motors elevate bathing to a new level

That such a device and the idea of actually hopping in and going for a dry run in the sky is daunting gives proof to one of the Guys’ slogans, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

After a disastrous first attempt with a quadcopter type of device, the lads partnered with Exabotix, a German drone manufacturer which normally makes multirotors capable of lifting payloads from 0.5 kilograms (1.1 pounds) to 5.0 kilograms (11 pounds).   Their expertise in keeping their camera platforms upright enabled the “Guys” to stabilize a bathtub that, as one friend jibes, will be great in the event of a water landing.

Tub, aluminum framing, six motors, controllers, and batteries raised the price to about €17,000, or $20,845.  Phillip Mickenbecker, one of the students, flies it in a short cross-country hop to visit the local bakery, easily passing over hedges and wetlands.

Exabotix reported, “At their latest idea, however, they reached their limits and needed some help.  After their first attempts with the aircraft were not quite successful, the boys contacted us and asked for support.

“At Exabotix we deal with future technologies, that’s our world.  Therefore, the Real Life Guys, after the integration and programming of our own control, could dare the first flight.  (Your editor guesses some tuning of proportional/integral/derivative control loops was involved.) Our flight hall is designed to test prototypes.  So we were gladly available for this project and also gladly supported the later flight for bread rolls.

We like the courage of the Real Life Guys and have been able to test our own abilities in a cool way. Let’s see how far we can get on!”

Like Peter Sripol with his rapid-fire mind and even quicker videos, the Real Life Guys seem to have boundless energy and great amounts of self-confidence.  At the same time, they know when to call in the professionals for advice.

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AirSpaceX is NOT an Elon Musk Company

Airspace Experience Technologies, LLC (AirSpaceX) is a subsidiary of Detroit Aircraft Corporation (DAC), and as far as this editor knows, not related to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.  A little closer to earth, the planned low-altitude perambulations of its two creations reflect the growing interest in “sky taxis.”

A Holding Company Brought Down by the Great Depression

Jon Rimanelli, founder and CEO, sees Detroit Aircraft Corporation as an attempt to return the Motor City to its former glory days as a leader in aircraft development.  He notes that for a few brief years, DAC held controlling interests in the Ryan and Lockheed Aircraft companies, and created the only metal-clad airship in aeronautical history, The ZMC-2.  He explains, “Back in the ’20s, Detroit was the center of the universe for aviation. Detroit Aircraft Corporation was the largest aircraft holding company in the world. They owned the biggest brands,”  Its technology may have been underappreciated in its time, but the modern DAC is promoting a confluence of automotive technologies that could get Detroit flying again.

According to Wikipedia, “In its lifetime the ZMC-2 logged 752 flights and 2,265 hours of flight time.”

Rimanelli revealed a vision not unlike that of Airbus and its A3 subsidiary, or of Aurora Flight Sciences (recently acquired by Boeing), Volocopter, or eHang.  Appropriately, he made his TedX presentation during the Detroit International Auto Show, and advocated the benefits of his sky taxis while explaining that all the science-fiction trappings could be accomplished with existing technology pulled from today’s crop of automobiles.

Today’s Two Offerings

AirSpaceX shows two different approaches to VTOL sky taxis on its website.  MOBi 2025, revealed last year at Uber’s Elevate Summit, was originally shown as having four rotors and a four-seat passenger pod.  Displaying greater flexibility on the current website, the machine can have up to six rotors on its pivoting wing and offers a choice of pods for different missions.  The four shown along with the passenger module include Intelligence/Surveillance/Reconnaissance (ISR), research, medical evacuation (Med-Evac), and cargo modules.

MOBi 2025’s multiple cabin modules

Each mission module can be carted around on the ground on a four-wheel self-propelled unit, brought to a landing zone, and attached to a flight module.  AirSpaceX claims the ability to fly an optimum payload of four passengers and 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of cargo at a cruise speed of 150 mph for up to 62 miles.  Control can be fully autonomous or “pilot assisted.”  Is the plane assisting the pilot or the pilot assisting the plane?  As artificial intelligence becomes a bigger factor in our futures, such distinctions may become increasingly blurred?

MOBi One at the Detroit International Auto Show

MOBi One, unveiled at this year’s North American International Automobile Show in (fittingly) Detroit, has eight rotors – six on the wings and two – one each above and below a slot in the long fuselage.  The fuselage is sleeker than the pods under MOBi 2025, and the great power might account for the faster top speed of 250 mph.   It can handle two-to-four passengers and up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of cargo.  Operation can be either electrical VTOL, or conventional short takeoff and landing (e-STOL).

MOBi One can fly in either e-VTOL or e-STOL fashion

Detroit Aircraft Corp. has grand ambitions and a talented group backing Rimanelli.  Their craft are similar to others charged with the same mission, and that is to be expected.  The high-winged configuration would certainly allow great flexibility in handling a number of different payload modules and that utility may lead to its widespread use.  The company has expansive ideas about that.  Our goal is to deploy 2,500 aircraft at the nation’s 50 largest cities by 2026, targeting existing infrastructure at first,” says JP Yorro, Chief Commercial Officer at AirSpaceX.  “The MOBi development program will be capital intensive, but air Mobility as a Service could generate billions for the economy. We are considering a broad array of financing options, including potential fractional ownership interest and profit sharing models.”

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