So, let's talk green: An electric helicopter for an artificial lung

By C B Ramkumar

Let us all watch this space for the next passionate entrepreneur who is out there to make other great strides in mobility and take it to even greater heights.

On the back of all the noise of the silent electric cars, there is a quiet revolution taking place in a noisy part of the skies. Electric helicopters! When one thinks of a helicopter, one imagines a few thousand tonnes of steel taking off like a chattering dragonfly into the sky. They are gas guzzlers, typically burning about 500 pounds of aviation fuel every hour. The carbon emissions are massive. Now imagine this same helicopter taking off using electric motors, soaring into the sky, like a silent dragonfly.

Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius satellite radio and vehicle navigation company GeoStar has proof of this possibility, first reported by Fortune. On 21st September 2016, an electric helicopter she developed, flew at 400 feet for five minutes at speeds of 80 knots.

“This was a proof of concept,” says Rothblatt. “Everyone told me this was impossible.” While battery-powered drones are being flown around the world, no one is focused yet on using batteries to power a several-thousand-pound helicopter along with the weight of a human pilot and cargo in it. These helicopters, with the required number of batteries will be far too heavy.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. This is exactly what played out for Rothblatt. Her daughter was diagnosed with a rare life-threatening form of pulmonary hypertension, which prompted her to form United Therapeutics to market medication for others suffering from the same disease. Because pulmonary hypertension often requires a lung transplant, she next created a division of her drug company that focuses on developing artificial and transplantable lungs from pig genetics. These artificial lungs were then delivered using helicopters.

But what disturbed Rothblatt was the noise of the helicopters and the accompanying environmental pollution that resulted from each flight. So she decided that it was time to invent the first full-size battery-powered electric helicopter to deliver the transplantable organs more cleanly and quietly. Being a certified helicopter pilot made the venture easier.

Where did she get her inspiration from? You guessed right — Tesla. She is a big fan of Elon Musk, owns seven Tesla automobiles, and gave a presentation to the audience about her battery-powered helicopter concept at the grand Gigafactory dedication last year.

She worked together with Tier 1 engineering, where she modified a small production helicopter by removing the engine and replacing it with 1,250 pounds of lithium-ion batteries sourced from Brammo, an electric motorcycle company. A YASA electric motor was also installed. The helicopter and conversion cost about $1 million in total. The work was paid for by Rothblatt's medical company, Lung Biotechnology.

Earlier this year, Solar Impulse, a zero fuel aircraft flew 40,000 KM's, proving to the world that it is possible to build a solar powered aircraft that can actually fly around the world! Solar impulse proved to the world that you do not have to use polluting fossil fuels to fly an aircraft. Now Martine Rothblatt has proven that you can fly a helicopter too.

When the mind is fired up and fuelled by passion, even the impossible seems to be possible. From homes to cars to aircrafts to helicopters, all can be powered using electricity that can come from the sun, instead of burning fossil fuels that cause global warming resulting in devastating climate change extreme weather events.

Let us all watch this space for the next passionate entrepreneur who is out there to make other great strides in mobility and take it to even greater heights.