By now, most readers are probably pretty familiar with quadracopters - small hovering unmanned electric aircraft, which get their lift from a set of four propellers. Well, make the whole thing larger, boost the number of propellers (and accompanying motors) to 16, and you get what German aircraft developer e-volo calls a multicopter. While the company has previously demonstrated unmanned drones, on October 21st it accomplished what it claims is a world first - a manned flight.
The flight took place at an airstrip in southwest Germany, and lasted one and a half minutes. Thomas Senkel, a physicist and designer/builder of the multicopter, piloted the aircraft from a center-mounted seat, using a handheld wireless control unit. The flight consisted mainly of maneuvering the multicopter around within a fairly small area - no sense in getting cocky.
"The flight characteristics are good natured," Senkel said afterward. "Without any steering input it would just hover there on the spot."
According to e-volo, its multicopter is simpler in construction and mechanics than a helicopter, and safer - it can reportedly land even with up to four of its motors failed, and its propellers experience much less wear. Onboard computers running custom firmware control the rotational speed of the propellers, dictating the attitude (horizontal orientation to the ground), altitude and direction of travel of the aircraft.
Potential flight times range from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on payload and battery capacity.
The e-volo team are also working on a commercial version of the manned multicopter, which they hope will be ready for the marketplace "at an affordable price" within the next few years. They state that a gas/electric hybrid model is a possibility, to increase flight time to at least an hour.
The first manned electric multicopter flight can be seen in the video below.
The world's first manned electric helicopter flight was achieved earlier this year. Technically, at least by current definitions, there's no such thing as a multicopter, but we expect it will become part of the language eventually.
Interestingly, e-volo's Stephan Wolf went to great pains to point out that the company's new flight machine was not a helicopter. "It uses a completely different technology compared to standard helicopter technology, which we now consider obsolete", he said.