Developers of small electric aircraft begin to target medical response market
By Paul Brinkmann|December 13, 2023
First responders would steer the aircraft to the scene to arrive within golden minutes
This story was updated to reflect Jump Aero’s latest thinking about when it will fly its next demonstrator.
In a medical emergency, the patient might have only eight minutes to receive initial aid before death or brain damage occur from lack of oxygen. Reaching a victim within that precious window can be difficult and at times impossible.
In rural locations, conventional helicopters are often the only way to do it, but many areas lack access to them due to the high cost of fuel and pilot hours. Likewise, in urban settings, a conventional helicopter might not be available to whisk a medical worker over a traffic jam or might not have enough clearance to land and take off.
These issues have prompted many in the emerging electric aircraft industry to view medical response as a potential market for their aircraft, which will have a smaller footprint than conventional helicopters. A medical worker would be rushed to the scene with a defibrillator and other equipment to stabilize the patient until an ambulance arrives to take the person to the hospital, if necessary.
Among those targeting the emergency medicine market is LIFT Aircraft in the Austin, Texas, area. The company on Thursday announced it will reserve five of its single-person Hexa multicopters to sell to agencies who must pay a $2,500 deposit by Dec. 31.
“Our hope is that this technology can really bring down the cost of reducing response time without a need for helicopters or helicopter pilots,” Kevin Rustagi, LIFT’s chief commercial officer, tells me.
LIFT indicates on its website that in addition to carrying medical workers, its aircraft could rush police, firefighters, rescue and disaster response workers to a scene.
Hexa is an ultralight, meaning that in the U.S. these workers would not need a pilot license to operate one, just the training required under FAA’s Public Aircraft Operations rule, which allow government agencies to fly without FAA’s full oversight. Propelled by 18 rotors, Hexa has a range of 16.7 kilometers and a top speed of 117 kph. The company says it can cover that range in about 17 minutes.
The emphasis on the first response market is a shift for Hexa. The company’s original plan was to provide brief flights for “experiential tourism,” Rustagi says, but the company now believes first response organizations will want to buy the aircraft.
“This is 2023, and people are dying merely because we can’t reach them fast enough. But we have the technology now,” he says.
Another company, Jump Aero of Petaluma, California, north of San Francisco, has designed a single-person electric aircraft specifically for medical response, and plans to fly its largest demonstrator yet in 2025. The company’s goal is to maximize the distance that can be covered in eight minutes.
Jump was founded in 2019 by Carl Dietrich, an aerospace engineer who previously co-founded Terrafugia, a company pursuing a flying car that would ride on roads and extend wings to take off. Not long after Terrafugia was bought by a Chinese conglomerate in 2017, Dietrich left to start Jump.
Dietrich says others in the eVTOL, electric vertical takeoff and landing, industry were giving “lip service” to the idea of deploying electric aircraft in medical emergencies, but when he spoke with leaders in the sector, he saw the importance of rapid response. Among the organizations Jump is targeting is Falck, one of Europe’s largest private first response providers based in Denmark.
“We really optimized this vehicle from day one to focus on rapid response — how far you can go in eight minutes, not dollars per passenger mile or what have you,” Dietrich tells me. “That resulted in an aircraft highly differentiated from the rest of the emerging electric industry.”
The unique design of the planned single-seat JA1 Pulse, Dietrich says, is a “biplane standing tailsitter,” so named because, when on the ground, it stands upright on its tail.
Each JA1 will have eight rotors designed to spin up in less than 60 seconds and take the aircraft to a top speed of 463 kph, so it would reach anywhere in a 50 kilometer radius in under eight minutes. Each aircraft and its battery are designed for fast one-way trips. To be recharged, a JA1 will have to be picked up by a truck and hauled back to its starting point.
So far, Jump has flown small, subscale demonstrators, but the one it plans to fly in 2025 will be larger, with a 1.2-meter wingspan. The planned production model’s wingspan would be 5.8 meters.
In contrast to the Hexa, each JA1 medical worker/pilot in the U.S. would have to be trained as a pilot under FAA’s light sport category. To enable quick takeoffs, pilots will wear a harness that snaps into the cockpit seat, which will have the pilot in an upright, standing position for takeoff.
After rising vertically, the JA1 will transition to forward flight by tilting over on its side. This means the pilot, who was previously standing upright, will then be lying prone on the cockpit bench, staring at the ground through a large cockpit window.
The process is reversed for landing, and the aircraft is again standing upright, sitting on its tail, rotors and fuselage once more pointed at the sky.
“This landing configuration enables us to land on almost any unimproved surface,” Dietrich says.
Flying low at high speeds, however, means JA1 could only be flown in rural, low-density population areas, he says.
Meanwhile, in Germany, air taxi developer Volocopter, based near Stuttgart, and ADAC Luftrettung, a Munich-based rescue company, plan to conduct research toward carrying doctors to emergency scenes aboard VoloCity multicopters that will be painted with the yellow ADAC branding. ADAC has agreed to purchase two of the two-person VoloCity air taxis, with an option to buy another 150.
Volocopter says on its website that urban areas are a focus for the research flights planned with ADAC: “Several factors contribute to delayed [emergency medical] response times. These include the ever-growing demand for emergency medical services, congested urban areas and traffic.”
The VoloCity multicopter, also with 18 rotors, has a cruise speed of 90 kph and top range of 65 kilometers. A pilot and a first responder could team up for medical missions.
ADAC test flights are planned for 2024 or after VoloCity receives a type certificate from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.
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