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.