By Fred Lambert
Tier 1 Engineering unveiled the first battery-powered manned helicopter. The engineering firm retrofitted a used Robinson R44 helicopter with two electric motors powered by a large battery pack made by Brammo, the electric motorcycle maker turned battery pack manufacturer, fitted on the underbody of the aircraft.
The vehicle, which completed its inaugural flight just last month, serves as a proof-of-concept and test mule while Tier 1 Engineering develops a more advanced electric helicopter with its partners under the ‘EPSAROD’ development program.
Under its current form, the test vehicle is capable of a range of 20 minutes or approximately 30 nautical miles with a cargo of 600 lbs. but the company hopes to achieve much more. The goal of the EPSAROD program is to push the range to 150 minutes of flight time, including a 30-minute reserve.
The aircraft’s historic first flight was at the Los Alamitos Army Airfield, but the military is not involved in the program. It’s just where they got authorization to test the vehicle.
Ric Webb, a 25+ years veteran of the air force turned commercial helicopter pilot, did the honors of the first flight of the battery-powered helicopter.
During the flight, the aircraft reached heights of over 400 ft.
Tier 1 Engineering partnered with Rinehart Motion Systems and Brammo for the project. The battery maker built a custom 700 volt – 100 amp-hour lithium-polymer battery pack weighing at 1100 lbs.
While they added a lot of weight with the battery, they compensated with the engine. They removed the 500lb Lycoming IO-540 internal combustion engine and replaced it with two three-phase permanent magnet synchronous motors weighing at 100lb.
The company claims that they managed to retrofit the aircraft in just 6 months with a team of 9 engineers led by the President of Tier 1 Engineering, Glen Dromgoole. They will be testing the aircraft throughout the next year will building the next EPSAROD helicopter prototype.
The program is encouraging for electric flight in general, but it is especially designed to create an electric semi-autonomous aircraft for organ deliveries to hospitals for transplantation. EPSAROD is an acronym for ‘Electric Powered Semi-Autonomous Rotorcraft for Organ Delivery’.