Just imagine sitting in your own personal aircraft. You pull a single joystick back and buzz vertically into the sky. Your nose itches, so you let go of the joystick to scratch it while your EV floats vertically in space like a giant drone. Itch scratched, you grab the joystick, push it gently forward, and head off to your destination.
That’s the dream of the burgeoning electric vertical take-off and landing (EVTOL) industry that's on display at CES 2024. I haven't see one of these things fly yet, but I did get up close with one of the first commercially available all-electric personal aircraft, the Helix Pivotal.
eVTOL’s are attractive to the flight enthusiast community because you don’t need a pilot’s license to fly them. They’re light enough and speed-limited enough to fall just below that threshold, which in the US is classified as an FAA Part 103 (Ultralight) aircraft. In the case of Helix, it weighs just 360 pounds. That’s quite surprising for the single-seater, considering its size, and means that one person, with effort, can move it (using a small, included two-wheeled cart).
The white, red, and black, carbon-fiber body is roughly 15 feet long, and the dual wings stretch out at least that far. I wondered how something like this could be transported without flying it into Las Vegas; it turns out the wings pop off, and then the body and wings can fit in your standard U-Haul trailer.
Inside the wings, which are tilted slightly backwards, are eight motors and as many batteries. The Helix Pivotal can fly for two hours on a charge at a snappy 62mph – that’s obviously well below the 170mph or so you might expect from a typical single-engine aircraft, but for more speed you’d need that license.
There are no wheels on the Helix, and that’s because it performs vertical take-offs and landings. Company representatives told me it can land on grass, dirt, and other surfaces. In hover mode, the personal aircraft is tipped back so you’re looking skyward. Flight mode is the opposite; you’ll be tipped forward so the hatch cover is facing you. Cameras near the base show you what’s below to help guide your landing.
It's a beautiful, sleek aircraft, and the gray interior is the picture of simplicity. There are two joysticks, though you only use one at a time. Helix execs told me the second one is there for redundancy, and to allow flyers to choose left or right-handed control. In between them is a roughly 12-inch touchscreen that was not turned on when I saw it. The seat looked comfortable – I wasn't allowed to climb in, sadly – and the space appeared cramped but not claustrophobic. I didn’t see a hatch for luggage, or even for a bag of in-flight snacks.
Helix is taking orders for the small aircraft now, and plans to begin deliveries in June of this year. The base model, which includes the Helix, a vehicle cart, charger, canopy, and training goes for $190,000 (yes, you read that right). If you want to add 4K cameras, recording, an extra cart for the dual wings, another charger, and even a flight-traffic control system, it’ll cost you $240,000. There's even a $260,000 tier that adds training for a second pilot, an updated flight deck, and a fully customized exterior. I foresee some all-black Helix’s in the company's future.
No one, including Helix, expects you to start flying the Pivotal into work; it’ll likely only be used in rural and other open areas, and not, for instance, in New York City, or any suburb featuring lots of power lines and other obstacles. Even with these limitations, though, there’s a definite appeal to the idea flying inside your own drone – if you can afford it.
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A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.
Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.