United Therapeutics founder Martine Rothblatt is counting on eVTOL aircraft to help her company move thousands of human organs to where they are needed to save lives through transplant surgery. Speaking at Aero Montreal’s International Aerospace Innovation Forum on December 15, the entrepreneur, who also founded the SiriusXM satellite radio network, said that the new generation of aircraft can deliver the operational flexibility needed to make large-scale organ transportation feasible.
Rothblatt explained that United Therapeutics has “three shots on goal” in its investment strategy in the eVTOL sector. First, it is the largest non-Chinese investor in EHang and its family of Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (AAVs). Second, it is backing U.S.-based Beta Technologies in its efforts to develop the Alia 250 aircraft. Finally, it is also backing Eco Helicopters in its project to develop an electrically powered version of the Robinson R44 light helicopter.
EHang is now working on a longer-range version of its 116 and 216 AAVs that will be able to fly up to around 250 nautical miles. This, said Rothblatt, is the sweet spot in terms of the range (plus emergency reserves) it needs to expand its organ transportation network across North America.
According to Rothblatt, the new EHang design will feature a fixed-wing to meet this requirement, unlike its current eVTOL designs, which can fly only around 22 miles. United Therapeutics has committed to buying up to 1,000 of the longer-range aircraft and is willing to help the Chinese company achieve type certification in the U.S. and Canada.
Announcing second-quarter financial results for EHang on August 25, chairman and CEO Huazhi Hu said that the company is working on a longer-range aircraft. Pressed for details, he would only say that this will have range of over 100 km (54 nautical miles). Chief strategy officer Edward Xu added that details for the project were "almost ready for release."
Quizzed by analysts as to how EHang intends to more than triple the range of its current eVTOL design, Xu responded, “We won’t comment on how we are achieving this, but you will be surprised.” He added that the new aircraft is “one of a number of things in our pipeline.”
Back in May 2016, United Therapeutics subsidiary Lung Biotechnology announced a partnership with EHang to develop a longer-range version of the aircraft now known as the 116 AAV (then called the EHang 184) under the name Manufactured Organ Transport Helicopter (MOTH). At the time, the company indicated that it would be willing to buy 1,000 of these aircraft over a 15 year period.
United Therapeutics has also placed an order for an unspecified number of the Alia 250 aircraft that Beta Technologies is developing at its headquarters in Plattsburgh, New York. This is expected to deliver a 600-pound payload and a range of at least 250 nautical miles. Two United Technologies subsidiary companies based in Canada are supporting Beta with engineering work for the program.
Rothblatt acknowledged that the Eco Helicopters’ R44 conversion will never deliver the required 250-nautical-mile range, but it might have some use for shorter flights of up to around 100 nautical miles. She has piloted the aircraft herself during some of the flight tests.
United Technologies is already moving some organs around using existing aircraft on a limited basis. It has a need to transplant organs from its facilities in Maryland and Florida, where it restores damaged organs before taking them to hospitals for transplant.