By Lauren Bartlett,
A Kiwi company builds the ultimate high-altitude rescue vehicle
The Alpine Wasp is most high-tech gadget to grace the slopes of Everest since Mark Inglis’ leg. The remote-controlled helicopter will be first to land on the peak of Everest next year, but it won’t be carrying passengers—it’s designed to rescue climbers who otherwise have no hope of survival.
The Wasp is the first high-altitude helicopter that can rescue climbers from above 12,000 feet. Designed by Auckland company TGR Helicorp, it’s powered by the DeltaHawk, the world’s first turbo-charged, intercooled, V4, two-stroke, reverse-rotation diesel engine (insert Tool Man grunt here). “The capability is moving from the sublime to the almost ridiculous in terms of power,” says TGR managing director Trevor Rogers.
“We find people are very skeptical about diesel engines, but this isn’t your typical pick-up truck,” chief executive Glenda Rogers says of the uber-lightweight engine.
It’s not your typical anything. With 16 on-board cameras, ultrasound and virtual reality flying capabilities, the Wasp is set to save lives and revolutionise the risky business of high-altitude rescue.
The pilotless craft, currently taking shape in TGR’s East Tamaki factory, operates by locating a climber’s rescue beacon then ascending to land on a flat ledge to allow the rescued to climb inside. If no flat ledge is available, it can hover above a cliff, dropping a Kevlar strap from a probe that attaches to the climber. Once the climber is secure, the helicopter can back up and away from the cliff in one motion. “Otherwise you’d get the best bungy of your life,” says Trevor Rogers, “which would be fine, except the mountain is covered in jagged rocks.” The chopper then winches the climber inside, away from the extreme temperature and icy down-draft created by near-supersonic blades.
The Rogers realised they could build the Wasp while working on other helicopters they produce for military and government clients. “We discovered almost by accident how high we could go,” says Trevor Rogers. “We’ve always had a good relationship with Nepal [in a former career, the Rogers ran a tour group to the region, and knew the Prime Minister of Nepal back when he was still a hotel owner]. We looked up at Everest and thought, ‘We could get up there’. Creating the Alpine Wasp was the next logical step.”
The Rogers were also keen to help climbing friends Mark Inglis and Peter Hillary, who now act as patrons of the chopper. Trevor Rogers’ connection with the Hillary family goes back to childhood summer holidays, when Sir Edmund was just Ed. “His aunties used to make him row me around the mangroves in an old 20-foot clinker like The African Queen,” says Rogers. “When he climbed Everest, I said I knew him at school—and got the cane for lying!”
Although TGR plans to land the ’copter on the summit—no mean feat considering the 12-metre Alpine Wasp is two metres longer than the space on the peak—the Rogers insist it will be used for rescue only. “We’re not into eco-tourism, or taking up gear. You couldn’t take passengers up at that altitude anyway—they’d be dead in 30 seconds.” This is because climbers have time to acclimatise, whereas if passengers were to exit a helicopter at that altitude they would quickly succumb to altitude sickness.
The TGR team is building a base for the Wasp at Namche Bazar, on the slopes of Everest at 12,500 feet—the limit a normal helicopter can fly to.
Included in the base will be a hospital and a centre for porters’ equipment, as well as the remote flying technology. Rather than regular UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) technology that can cause the operators nausea, TGR is working with techno-firms across the world to create a high-tech operations room for the remote ‘pilot’. “It looks like the pilot is sitting in a giant tennis ball with open doors,” says Trevor Rogers. “If the operator feels sick, they can look away from the screen. With the old technology, if you got sick in an operator helmet, you’d never put one on again.”
Perhaps the most fascinating part of the chopper is the distance it can cover at lower levels. It’s capable of flying a New Zealand–Australia–Fiji triangle without refuelling. This could greatly simplify maritime search and rescue operations, and remove the risks to the crew.
The Rogers haven’t done the sums on their project yet, but so far the figure is somewhere around the US$5 million mark, says Trevor Rogers. “We’ve ended up having to do things we never anticipated, and of course it has to be high performance all the time! But we just can’t wait to use it in a rescue—that’s the ultimate.”