Loz BlainFebruary 17th, 2017
Sky-Hopper's manned multicopter prototype in untethered test flight, with founder Peter Dobber at the controls.(Credit: Sky-Hopper)
Only a handful of teams around the globe have safely demonstrated a manned, electric multirotor aircraft, but there's every indication these VTOL Jetsons-mobiles will play a major role in the future transport mix. Here's another example out of the Netherlands – the Sky-Hopper.
Manned multicopters for personal flight are definitely going to be a thing in the near future. On the industrial-grade side of things, you can look at eHang out of China, and their (dubious, in my opinion) plans to roll out VTOL air taxis in Dubai this year. Or Jetpack Aviation's upcoming prototypes, or eVolo's Volocopter.
If you want to know how these things are most likely to impact your life in the medium term, you should check out Uber's excellent Elevate whitepaper, which details how cruise-capable electric VTOL vehicles could make business sense in the coming decades, and does a great job outlining the technological, regulatory, infrastructure and capital issues that'll need to be addressed before they start operating in commercial quantities.
But multicopters are easy to build – heck, the entire drone industry was built on do-it-yourself hobby kits as recently five or six years ago. And we now live in a world where it's easy and cheap to buy things like inertial measurement units, GPS units, electric motors and props. Flight controller chips from HobbyKing, Naze32, OpenPilot, DJI and a rash of others are cheap, reliable, reasonably bulletproof and come with easy-to-program software. Even the price of a decent sized lightweight lithium battery pack is coming down.
So it's natural enough that people are starting to build multicopters in their back yards that are big enough to carry humans around. The technology is easily available – just add cojones and stir.
Some of these look terrifying – take this Swedish flying carpet we covered in 2016. But that inventor chose to use gasoline-powered motors, which respond so slowly to throttle inputs that they struggle to self-stabilize in a gust of wind. Checking the inventor's YouTube channel, it seems he lost control and crashed it, and he's now working on an electric version.
Others, like the Sky-Hopper here, actually look kinda stable in the air. This is a small team from the Netherlands, working as best as I can tell out of a Dutch back yard. Their prototype is an unglamorous, boxy airframe made of lightweight, hollow aluminum struts, with a small seat and harness in the middle.
It uses 16 DC props arranged in a grid. Each prop appears to be around the 18-20 inch range, and the pilot literally holds a remote control transmitter that would look familiar to any multicopter hobbyist.
After several months testing on a tether system in the back yard. the Sky-Hopper team has now released video of an untethered, manned flight with founder Peter Dobber at the sticks.
Sketchy as the prototype might look, it clearly flies, and in a relatively stable manner. That elevates the Sky-Hopper into a rarified group – just a handful of such projects have ever actually lifted somebody off the ground and back down, untethered and safely.
Next on the menu for the team appears to be something more akin to a traditional helicopter shape, with an enclosed cabin, landing skids and a series of arms coming off the top of the cabin supporting the motors. A small scale prototype of this next model is currently flying, using six props on six arms and a carved body.
The Sky-Hopper team appears to have commercial aspirations for the project, and we look forward to seeing how things go from here. But for these things to take off (waka waka) in any volume, a side industry will clearly need to spring up offering ballistic parachutes, airbag emergency low-altitude landing systems, or some other way of ensuring pilots and passengers can have some degree of protection from system failure, at a range of different heights and velocities.
In the meanwhile, here's a toast to the Sky-Hopper team and the other maverick aviators on the crest of the manned multicopter wave. These guys are pushing forward a technology that seems certain to play an important part in the future transport mix once battery costs and densities hit the magic spot.