Originally published on Gas2.
Martine Rothblatt is not your typical person. She is the founder of Sirius satellite radio and vehicle navigation company GeoStar. When her daughter was diagnosed with a rare life-threatening form of pulmonary hypertension, Rothblatt formed United Therapeutics to market medication for others suffering from the same disease. Because pulmonary hypertension often requires a lung transplant, she next created a division of her drug company that focuses on developing artificial and transplantable lungs from pig genetics.
But the helicopters that deliver those artificial lungs are loud and not particularly environmentally friendly, so Rothblatt decided it was time to invent the first full-size battery-powered electric helicopter to deliver the transplantable organs more cleanly and quietly. Helicopters can burn 500 pounds of aviation fuel every hour, leaving a trail of carbon emissions in their wake.
Rothblatt is also a certified helicopter pilot. She says the inspiration for the electric helicopter came from Tesla Motors. She is a big fan of Elon Musk and owns seven Tesla automobiles. At the grand Gigafactory dedication last summer, she gave a presentation to the audience about her battery-powered helicopter concept.
Working together with Tier 1 engineering, she modified a small production helicopter by removing the engine and replacing it with 1,250 pounds of lithium-ion batteries sourced from Brammo, an electric motorcycle company. A YASA electric motor was also installed.
On September 21, the converted helicopter flew for 5 minutes at an altitude of 400 feet at speeds up to 80 knots. The machine has a flying time of about 20 minutes with its present battery pack. The helicopter and conversion cost about $1 million in total. The work was paid for by Rothblatt’s medical company, Lung Biotechnology.
Rothblatt says the next step is to design a helicopter and battery pack that are specifically intended for all-electric flight. Careful readers will notice the similarity in this process to the series of events that led to the first Tesla Roadster a decade ago. “This was a proof of concept,” says Rothblatt. “Everyone told me this was impossible.” If the group develops solid battery-powered helicopter tech, Rothblatt says they’ll probably license it to other companies. She says she’s in the midst of talking to helicopter makers to choose the vendor.
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