Electric helicopter creators to receive award

Electric helicopter creators to receive award 23 Apr, 19, Source: American Helicopter Museum

AHMEC presents its Annual Achievement Award for innovation in rotary wing flight at its annual Gala fundraiser on Saturday, April 27, from 5 until 10 p.m. This year’s recipients are Dr. Martine Rothblatt, Chairman and CEO of United Therapeutics, and Tier 1 Engineering for their Electric Powered Robinson R44 helicopter.

Piloted by Captain Ric Webb of OC Helicopters and converted by Tier 1 Engineering and LungBioTechnology, the innovative aircraft, technically known as an Electrically-Powered Semi-Autonomous Rotorcraft for Organ Delivery (EPSAROD), set the Guinness World Record for Farthest Flight for an Electric Helicopter in December, 2018. Achieving a 30 nautical mile flight to 800 feet altitude with an average speed of 80 knots, the manned helicopter uses battery power for vertical takeoff, cruise and landing.

“We selected the R44 helicopter aircraft for this project as it has a heavy 450-pound internal combustion engine,” said Glen Dromgoole, founder of Tier 1 Engineering. “We removed the Lycoming engine, installed dual electric motors and a reduction gearbox to interface with the existing drivetrain. The retrofit with electric motors, weighing 100 pounds, provided useful load for batteries. A series of 11 battery modules weighing 1100 pounds completely powered the aircraft. The flight controls and drive train were unchanged from that of a Robinson R44, although a digital cockpit display was added for the engine as well as for data logging. No changes were made to drive train or flight control system.”

Although the idea of an electric helicopter isn’t new, it was Rothblatt’s young daughter who in 1994 provided the impetus for the team’s R44 when she was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), a rare life-threatening condition. Rothblatt immersed herself in learning everything possible about her child’s prognosis, refusing to accept a negative outcome and becoming a proponent of medical and pharmaceutical innovation. She created the PPH Cure Foundation and United Therapeutics, a biotechnology company that furthers PAH research.

Among Rothblatt’s pursuits was the technology behind organ transplants, which her daughter needed to survive. Part of that was their transportation. She envisioned a faster, safer and more efficient way to deliver organs to medical facilities. Calling on her pilot’s training in and knowledge of both fixed and rotary wing aviation, as well as her desire to reduce technology’s carbon footprint, she designed her electric helicopter.

“I devised the design by comparing the energy output of my Tesla Roadster with the energy requirements of my Bell 429, and replacing Jet A and dual turbine weight with next generation battery and e-motor weight,” Rothblatt explained. “It was on my drawing board for a half year before going to Tier 1, (who was) recommended to me by Kaman Aerospace. They had an entrepreneurial culture coupled with excellent knowledge of aircraft design principles.”

“Initially I thought it was extremely ambitious,” added Dromgoole, “but I embraced the challenge with a can-do attitude and I was surprised by what we achieved, (which) was to demonstrate the feasibility of electric propulsion in a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft; identify key areas requiring further development; obtain performance data on an energy storage system in an electric power unit; and validate our performance predictions. It is the first phase in the development of a certified electric propulsion system.”

Rothblatt lists many accomplishments to her credit, including wanting to connect the world via communications that resulted in SiriusXM and the launch of several other satellites. Her latest venture, LungBioTechnology pioneers research into cross-species lung organ transplantation, mainly from pigs, in order to decrease the number of people who die while waiting for transplants.

Dromgoole graduated with distinction from Auckland University, New Zealand, with a Masters in Mechanical Engineering and before founding Tier 1 Engineering, consulted to Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Gulfstream. He has 20 years of experience in design and development of commercial and military aircraft, including 777 Freighter, Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Gulfstream’s G5 Business Jet.

The pair intends to produce the aircraft commercially. Tier 1 Engineering has a continuing development program to extend the range of the helicopter and achieve a Supplementary Type Certification (STC) from the FAA for the electric power unit. They hope to begin in 2020.

“I believe helicopters are the coolest machines ever invented,” Rothblatt stated. “To be in even vaguely the same tribe as Frank Piasecki, Igor Sikorsky and Larry Bell is recognition that I hope will inspire many other aviators, inventors and makers.”

Rothblatt and Dromgoole will attend AHMEC’s Gala to accept their awards. The theme this year will be “A Night in Tuscany Celebrating Leonardo da Vinci.” Malvern’s Desmond Hotel will once again present creative cocktails followed by a delectable Tuscany-themed dinner. Leonardo himself will make an appearance, and other fun, interesting activities will ensue.

Tickets cost $150.00 per person and $1,250.00 for a table of 10. See the website to purchase tickets and for more information. Contact AHMEC at 610-436-9600 to purchase via telephone.

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