The Hirobo stand at the International Robotics Exhibition in Tokyo this week was full of surprises. The first was the appearance of the HX-1 unmanned electric helicopter, due to go into production before the end of the year, but an even bigger surprise was in store when you opened the brochure – details of the company's planned personal (manned) BIT electric micro helicopter.
Hiroshima-based Hirobo is a company best known for its radio-controlled scale helicopters, which sit at the high end of the marketplace. A Hirobo Eagle 3 EP won the 2013 F3C World Championships held in Poland this July, and the company has been producing scale models for 40 years.
In recent years it has been producing not just a wide range of scaled models with glow plug powerplants, but increasingly a range of electric models, and has developed a range of sophisticated control technologies which have now moved into the autonomous realm.
The company's compact IMU-05 attitude sensor is one such technology that has been developed to enable autonomous flight, and offers the company a serious competitive advantage in that area. The IMU-05 collects a wide range of information such as attitude angle, acceleration, angular rate and magnetic direction, and enables the helicopter to be remarkably stable in blustery winds – it is a key enabling technology of autonomous flight for helicopters.
Hirobo's first autonomous helicopter will be the HX-1, and the first guise in which we will see it is as a medical emergency and rescue vehicle. The HX-1 will sell for JPY 8,000,000 (approx US$80,000) complete with a spare battery set and the full medical kit.
The fully autonomous helicopter can be configured for many purposes including aerial photography, search and rescue, surveying and the transport of medical supplies, organs or blood, in order to save lives.
The HX-1 has an auto-return function for emergencies and employs coaxial counter-rotating blades and a brushless electric motor as its power source. It can fly for half an hour and has a range of around 30 miles (48 km) at its top speed of 62 mph (100 km/h).
Hirobo expects the affordability of the HX-1 to make it possible for smaller organizations (that can't afford a manned helicopter) to purchase their own transport helicopter.
Even more surprising than the sophistication of the HX-1 demonstrated in the videos being shown was the appearance in the HX-1 brochure of the BIT – an all-composite, all-electric, single-person micro helicopter.
Last year the BIT was shown for the first time at the Japan Aerospace show, but was not expected to be ready for market until 2020. It seems that time scale has been shortened considerably – we were told the BIT would be ready for market in 2016, and a lack of regulations by the United States Federal Aviation Authority would be the inhibiting factor as to the BIT's availability at market.
Various prices have been mentioned for the BIT in different publications, but Takahiro Koboyashi, Hirobo's Overseas Group Sales Manager, suggested it would sell for approximately three times the price of the HX-1 – approximately US$240,000.