SureFly Octocopter pitched at Detroit auto show as the drone anyone can fly at $200,000

Key Points
  • A small company out of Columbus, Ohio showed off what looks like a drone with a two-person passenger compartment at this week's Detroit auto show.
  • The craft is rated to carry 400 pounds and has a range of about 75 miles at a cruising speed of 75 mph.
  • Unlike a helicopter that requires an extensively trained pilot, the Surefly is largely computer controlled.
SureFly Octocopter shown at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, January 15, 2019.
Paul Eisenstein | CNBC

It's been the dream of countless visionaries, finding a way to let people fly as easily as they can drive. And a century after Henry Ford abandoned his own "Flying Flivver" project, an assortment of entrepreneurs are racing to finally make that a reality.

That includes a small company out of Columbus, Ohio that showed off what looks like a drone with a two-person passenger compartment at this week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit. With prototypes already taking to the air, the Workhorse Group is pushing to get the Federal Aviation Administration certification needed to launch production in less than two years and is already taking deposits.

"Our question is: Why doesn't everyone have a helicopter in their garage?" asked Workhorse CEO and founder Steve Burns, as he showed off the SureFly Octocopter at a stand in the back of Detroit's Cobo Hall convention center. Mainly because it is too expensive and difficult to fly, he added, answering his own question.

The goal of the Octocopter project is to make helicopter-style vertical take-off and landing flight easy, reasonably affordable and safe, even for relatively untrained operators. The company is hoping the FAA eventually will allow the drone-like machine to be operated by someone who can manage a Sport Pilot license that requires a fraction of the training and flight work of a standard pilot's license.

Going beyond earning a federal aircraft "type" certification, said Burns, "We hope to prove this is safer to take to a destination that to drive there."

Unlike a helicopter that requires an extensively trained pilot operating a variety of controls simultaneously, the Surefly is largely computer controlled. About the only thing its operator does is turn a joystick-like control to point where they want to go. A throttle control in the left door adjusts speed. To lift off or land, they simply speed up or slow down.

"If you can fly a drone, you can fly this," said Burns.

Interior of the Workhorse Group Surefly Octocopter at the Detroit auto show on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 operates with a joystick-like device executives hope will make flying as easy as operating a drone.
Paul Eisenstein/CNBC

Built almost entirely out of carbon fiber, but for the aluminum landing skids, the SureFly looks a lot like what you'd get attaching a passenger compartment to one of the popular DJI drones. It has four arms but each carries a pair of counter-rotating electric motors, for a total of eight. They typically require about 20 kilowatts of power each, 30 kWh at peak, typically on take-off or landing or when trying to stabilize the craft in rough winds.

The craft is rated to carry 400 pounds, though Workhorse is developing a heftier, military version that would bump it up to 640 pounds. Under normal conditions, the SureFly would have a range of about 75 miles at a cruising speed of 75 mph.

The potential is there to increase range, Burns said, though it would require boosting power, as well as increasing the size of the fuel tank.

SureFly is actually a hybrid-powered craft. The motors are electric but they draw power primarily from an engine running on either diesel or jet fuel that serves as a generator. There's a modest, 6 kWh battery on board that could kick in, were the generator-motor to fail, "providing enough power to safely land," said Burns.

Eventually, Workhorse would like to go all-electric, but the batteries needed to meet range expectations for a craft that small aren't yet available. Meanwhile, the SureFly could operate in places where chargers aren't available. And, since the generator-motor operates at a fairly stable speed, it is reasonably fuel-efficient and clean, Burns said.

The approach may add some complexity compared to an all-electric system, but it is far simpler than the drive system on a conventional helicopter, which has a seemingly endless assortment of moving parts that are complex and extremely costly to keep operating. Workhorse expects the motors, in particular, to last the life of the Octocopter.

The craft itself is expected to cost around $200,000, but that could come down if Workhorse can find ways to simplify manufacturing the carbon fiber it uses, a process that is notoriously complex and requires a significant amount of hand labor.

Though it will likely still be a few years before production can commence — if the company can satisfy regulators and raise enough money — it has already lifted a page out of Tesla's playbook and started taking $1,000 deposits from potential customers. Burns declined to say how many deposits Workhorse has received, but he suggests the company has drawn a lot of attention from potential customers in the military and agricultural fields as well as paramedics, firefighters and civilians who just think it would be cool to have a simpler version of a helicopter in their garage.

The company, which has also been supplying UPS with some electric-powered vans, recently won $35 million in secured funding from Marathon Asset Management, a global investment advisor based in New York City.

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