The September 2001 terror attack on the Twin Towers in New York produced a slew of inventions for emergency rescue and recovery services. The thought that people could be trapped in a skyscraper on the verge of collapse, without any means of rescuing them, seemed absurd - they would almost certainly be rescued either by helicopter, an aerial ladder from an aircraft flying overhead, a safety crane elevated from the ground or a bridge extended from an adjacent building. Sadly, nothing like this happened. Helicopters crews were afraid to go near the building for fear their aircraft would catch fire, and the cranes only went as far as the 15th floor. On observing the event many people began to wonder - whether out of creativity or trepidation - what would they have done in a situation like this?
Nehemia Cohen, the founder and CEO of rescue solutions company Olive Engineering Ltd. had invented the Elcopter some years earlier, but when he watched the news that day, he realized that there was a good chance that someone might finally take notice of his idea. Cohen, an expert in motion and control systems, had spent years designing a rescue solution using a helicopter which would have been just what was needed in the twin towers that day.
Olive Engineering's initial development was a helicopter whose cabin is actually a form of sling basket connected to two sets of cables in the same manner as an ordinary elevator. Hovering over a burning building, the helicopter lowers the lift, extending up to a distance of 300 meters - 100 floors - meaning that the aircraft itself does not have to approach the building and remains out of range of the flames and fumes. "The basis of the idea is to separate the rescue unit from the helicopter," says Cohen.
The elevator itself is fire and smoke proof, so it can enter a blazing building, access the area where people are trapped, and bring them out through the flames and smoke, but this is not what makes it unique. The real sophistication in Olive's idea lies in the basket's independent motion control system. It is powered by its own air jets that enable it to be navigated from place to place with a GPS system and sensors.
Had the Elcopter been invented solely for instances such as the attack on the twin towers, we might have said that it had already missed its market, since hopefully we are unlikely to see an exact repeat of the September 11 attack in the near future. But Cohen also offers the system for a range of other uses: rescuing people trapped in ravines which are too small for the helicopter to approach and are on the verge of being flooded or enveloped by fire, or airlifting VIPs or injured people from urban areas where there is no room for the helicopter to land, with the lift serving as an airborne ambulance. It can also be used for rescue operations at sea, where if the helicopter descended too low it would create a whirlpool that could drown the survivors waiting to be rescued, and to extinguish fires and send firefighters in to rescue survivors from burning towers, or train hose pipes on the source of the blaze.
We're familiar (principally through the cinema) with helicopters that engage in rescue missions using cables attached to a winch inside the aircraft and a basket at the other end. According to Cohen, this is a poor solution since the cable can swing from side to side like a pendulum and the helicopter has to carry out a good deal of maneuvering to get the basket to the right spot. The advantage of the Elcopter is, as mentioned earlier, its precision guidance system and the protection it offers against smoke, water, and fire. Its disadvantage is the price - an extra $5-10 million on top of the $30 million that a helicopter costs. The aircraft itself is also rendered less effective in day-to-day use since it weighs more and consumes more fuel.
Olive Engineering therefore developed a cheaper version called Spider. This too contains a sealed cabin that is fitted with air jets to enable it position itself on its own. But instead of lift cables, it is connected with a regular cable to a small helicopter, which costs $3.5 million. There is no need to make any changes to the helicopter, which can be also used as a regular aircraft. The extra cost of the basket ranges from $2.5-7 million.
Interest from the Ministry of Defense
A mechanical engineer with a master's degree in aeronautics, Cohen retired from his previous role at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. as project leader in the company's armaments and control division, to work on the Elcopter project. He was later joined by a team of former Rafael employees. Cohen has invested $800,000 of his own money, and received a NIS 130,000 grant from Chief Scientist through the Tnufa project.
Cohen intends to market the product in Israel first. "We're already in negotiations with the Defense Ministry on the Spider. The aim is to spread a network of cabins like these in strategic locations, a few cabins in each city, for use by the Israel Air Force's regular helicopters," he says. "We believe that the moment they see the helicopter on the news, orders will start coming in from all over the world."
According to him, if the company wins such an order it will not need to raise any more funding. If it doesn't win one in the near future, it will turn its attention to developing partnerships with helicopter manufacturers, and in the meantime it will raise capital to build a few helicopters of its own (anywhere from $10-40 million, depending on which model it builds first - the Spider or the Elcopter), and attempt to sell them overseas. "We're a bit ambivalent about raising funds because of this, since we're still not sure if we'll need it," says Cohen. "We'll certainly be glad to collaborate with a strategic player, whether a helicopter company or rescue equipment manufacturers."
Cohen estimates that a country like Israel will need four elevator-helicopters, while cities like New York or Los Angeles are likely to need six. "We only need a few orders to reach breakeven," he says, "and at its peak, this market could reach $500 million. People will feel safe with one or two one or two helicopters like these in the country," he concludes. "They'll say, 'if I get trapped, they'll have a way of rescuing me.'"
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes.co.il - on February 20, 2008
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