World’s First Manned Electric Powered Helicopter

By: | May 22nd, 2013

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The Achievement

In 2011, Pascal Chretien, an electric and aerospace engineer from French based Solution F, achieved the first untethered electric powered helicopter flight in history. The achievement seems modest in that he hovered 1 m above the ground for just over two minutes after several weeks of tethered flight testing.

The ultra light craft employed in the historic flight weighs 544 pounds (247 kg)  374 pounds (170kg) empty. Batteries weigh 132 pounds (60kg) with an output of 43 kwh continuous and a peak of 53 kwh. Note that watts are a unit of power and kilowatt hours a unit of energy.

Sikorsky’s Electric Helicopter

Sikorsky helicopter manufacturers have been attempting the same feat but have been using a traditional main rotor and tail rotor to counteract torque. Sikorsky’s project is called Firefly and had been the only research project in the world attempting to create an all electric helicopter before Solution F.

Sikorsky Project Firefly

Sikorsky Project Firefly (Image Courtesy www.sikorsky.com)

The Sikorsky design uses a 180 hp electric engine less powerful than a Crown Victoria Sedan automobile and has a flight time maximum of 15 minutes. Engineers are using nascent technology and learn and adapt it as they conduct tests.

Novel Design

Chretien designed a “coaxial contra rotating twin rotor” to reduce weight, minimize power requirements and eliminate the need for a tail rotor. Traditional helicopters use rudder pedals to control yaw but Chretien’s power control and a mechanical tilt weight shifting system do the job instead . The electric powered aircraft uses lithium-ion battery technology to power its engine. Engineers are also experimenting with “lithium-air batteries.” Finally a very light drivetrain provides 87.5% efficiency in converting power to lift.

Technical Challenges to Commercial Use

The biggest obstacle to commercial use of electric powered helicopters is reducing their weight. As engineers work on this issue they will develop hybrid rotary wing aircraft that will serve as an interim step to fully electric versions.

In the meantime toy sized electric helicopters are developing quickly. Using remote control, rechargeable batteries gyroscopes and cameras these toys can be very entertaining and provide a “push” to advancing technology of larger craft.

Large RC Helicopter

David Schilling

David lives in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts, and regularly visits MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Northeastern, Boston\’s leading companies and labs, the stacks at Boston Atheneaum and Boston Public Library to uncover and research story ideas. You can also find David on Google+.

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3 thoughts on “World’s First Manned Electric Powered Helicopter

  1. karthick be mechanical
    May 22, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    paim size helicopter is unbelives……..good….

  2. Len Brown
    May 29, 2013 at 4:52 am

    At long last it looks that controlled electric powered flight is a close reality. However the battery weight issue is still very much in the forefront. 15 minutes flying time is not much when you think of the time to recharge the batteries. What about a Toyota Prius approach i.e. small petrol driven alternator for charging the batteries and an electric motor drive for the main propulsion, this should certainly extend the flying time???

  3. Lee Bonney
    June 6, 2013 at 4:47 am

    The reference to RC “toys” is valid & these have developed over about 15 years. However the photo in the article is of a glow engine powered heli!

    E powered RC heli’s are still limited in terms of flight duration, the best can manage about 10 minutes of aerobatic flying. As a comparison, a recently launched 15CC petrol RC heli engine is said to provide more than 30min.

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