Fast Five – Questions For Kurt Robinson

K Robinson
Robinson Helicopter Co. President and Chairman Kurt Robinson

After graduating with an economics degree from the University of California-San Diego, Robinson was enticed by his father Frank to return to Torrance, California, and work at the family-owned company that had just begun deliveries of the R22. After two years working various positions at the plant — putting to good use the hands-on experience he had  gained in after-school jobs at an auto repair shop — the young Robinson headed back south, this time to earn a master’s in business administration and, with his dad’s encouragement, a law degree, both from the San Diego campus. Those done, he alighted in Torrance again. The year was 1987, and he’s been there ever since serving in a variety of executive positions until moving into the top job when his father retired 10 years ago. 

What do you make of the heady predictions for urban air mobility?

Robinson: It’s exciting and we’re talking about it internally. It’s getting closer and closer to reality. Ultimately, we expect to benefit from much of the ongoing developments in reliability, simplification and making things lighter. As you know, our aircraft already operate in urban environments in the U.S. and worldwide.

The biggest concern about lots of additional entrants is safety. Helicopter accidents rivet people’s attention. The critical technologies will be further refined autopilot and stability augmentation systems. The machines will have to be IFR-capable all the time. We’re working on that for our single-engine helicopters. For UAM to succeed, you can’t let fog on one side of the city prevent you from getting to the other. Then too, you have to operate them professionally under FAR Part 135 and along specific routes such as freeways. And you need to expand the infrastructure beyond what already exists in the Los Angeles area.  Another major concern is noise. You’ve got to reduce that.

Won’t accomplishing all that be expensive?

Robinson: I’m with you on that. An R22 costs $300,000 and it can only take one passenger. It’s quite limited in what it can do and carry. An R44 is better suited for the purpose since it can carry a pilot and three passengers and some luggage, but it costs $400,000 to $500,000. Next step up is an R66, which can whisk five over all the ground traffic jams, but it’s a $1 million investment.

Do you foresee pilotless UAM aircraft?

Robinson: At some point in time, I’m not going to bet against it. A key to achieving that is further development of autopilot systems whose proper functioning is virtually guaranteed. Ten years ago an autopilot was a $250,000 to $300,000 system. The autopilot on our R44 costs under $60,000 and the aircraft will fly itself with greater reliability. That’s the direction pilotless flight is going. Still, I’d want a pilot on board.

What of eVTOL—electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft?

Robinson: The power required for hovering a passenger-carrying aircraft is huge. That’s so difficult to achieve with electric power, it’s daunting. Endurance is a factor as well. That said, a company in Orange County did a long endurance flight in an R44 with a battery pack, so I’m not going to rule it out. At Robinson, we’re engine agnostic. We make piston and turbine models. We’ve looked at diesel. If there’s an electric option, we’ll absolutely look at it. Advances in that technology have gone forward significantly, but unless there’s some major transformation, I’m not optimistic about it over the next few years.

Would your company consider entering the drone business or manufacturing in a lower-cost location?

Robinson: No. We work at making aircraft that carry people. That’s our expertise. I love the high volume of the drone segment and the fact that they’re not so tied to regulation, which helps drop the costs. But it’s a different market, a different category than the one in which we operate. As for building elsewhere, we like to keep everything in house to control quality. That helps with logistics, too. Back in the '90s, lots of folks were outsourcing, but we were just the opposite. And are still.

William Garvey

Bill was Editor-in-Chief of Business & Commercial Aviation from 2000 to 2020. During his stewardship, the monthly magazine received scores of awards for editorial excellence.