By Glenn Pew, Contributing Editor, Video Editor
A team of three men operating from Germany has designed, built and announced the successful flight test of a manned electric 16-rotor multicopter. The aircraft, which looks like (and may actually be) little more than four large remote-controlled multicopters rigged together with an aluminum frame, flew for 1 minute and 30 seconds. The rotors have independent power supplies and motor controllers, and are vastly more simple than conventional helicopters in their operation and maintenance. They've also proven to be highly agile, maneuverable and stable in smaller-scale remote-control operations. In large-scale flight, the proof of concept machine is controlled by a remote controller handset held by the pilot. The first flight was piloted by team member Thomas Senkel, who sat at the center of the rig in a seat mounted above what appears to be a silver inflated exercise-ball landing cushion.
E-Volo has an empty weight of 80 kg. According to its creators, the aircraft can fly for up to 30 minutes, and 20 on average, depending on the payload. Motors are arranged on four arms that extend from the central seat structure with four motors per arm. E-Volo is capable of safe flight if up to four of its motors fail. Also, because of its configuration, which places the pilot above the rotor blades, E-Volo can easily be fitted with a ballistic parachute -- with an accompanying weight and endurance penalty. The propellers are all fixed-pitch, making them relatively maintenance-free. Multiple "mutually monitoring onboard computers" control the engines for directional control and stability. According to the pilot, "the flight characteristics are good-natured" and "without any steering input it would just hover there on the spot." The team says control firmware could be integrated with GPS systems (as it is in some smaller-scale radio-controlled versions) for fixed obstacle detection and automated flight between predetermined points. E-Volo's creators are considering folding-arm designs and the integration of an internal combustion generator to create a hybrid drive to extend range and endurance. But their hope is that battery technology will improve enough over the next half-decade or so to allow for a more commercially practical vehicle.