Spin-off tech group Surefly’s new personal helicopter completes its first test flight but could face tough competition

Surefly’s personal helicopter/EVTOL aircraft may have completed its first maiden hover but it still has a long way to go in terms of development.

As more advanced personal air mobility vehicles take to the skies, American technology company Workhorse Group Inc. is looking to up the ante with its newest electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (EVTOL) aircraft.

Surefly, a spin-off group of Workhorse Group’s aviation division, recently took its personal helicopter/EVTOL aircraft out for its first flight, completing a successful manned and untethered test hover.

Workhorse said it is the only company with the necessary Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) experimental certification to test this class of vehicle in the US.

While the pickup truck-sized aircraft did go airborne, the flight was an extremely short-lived one as it quickly landed after only a few seconds of hovering.

Youtube/ Workhorse Group

Nonetheless, Surefly sees this maiden voyage as a step forward with optimism for future development.

“For a craft like this, hovering is not much different than flying, so next step afterward we’ll hover maybe five feet then 10 feet and then eventually we’ll start to fly,” said Surefly’s CEO Steve Burns.

According to Workhorse Group’s website, the hybrid aircraft is able to accommodate two people and designed for short hop application, capable of hitting an estimated range of 112km.

The aircraft is also touted as suitable for “safe and easy flight”, boasting eight independent motors that each drive a single carbon fibre propeller and an on-board redundant backup battery system.

It even comes with an ballistic parachute for safe landing should its gasoline generator fail to function and the backup lithium battery be drained of emergency landing power.

Full computer and electrical system redundancy also helps to make trips “safe, reliable and comfortable”, said the company’s chief operating officer, John Graber.

“It takes the way self-driving cars are making the highways safer, it takes that to aviation,” he added.

Surefly already has big plans for its EVTOL aircraft, proposing precision agriculture, emergency response, city commuting and military use as possible future applications.

The target price of the personal aircraft is currently set to be under $200,000 (S$266,360) and interested buyers are able to make reservations via Workhorse Group’s website.

However, it would be an uphill battle for the fledgling company as it faces tough competition from China’s Ehang 184 passenger drone which has already proven to be able to fly autonomously at great speeds and over long range.

Like Surefly’s aircraft, the Ehang 184 is armed with a multi-rotor system that allows safe landing even if multiple systems become inoperable.

It’s more battle-hardened too, having been involved in over 1,000 days of research and development and over 1,000 flight tests.

In the meantime, it seems like Surefly’s newest invention would have to resort to playing catch-up before it can break the mould.