Talking to Beta Technologies’ Kyle Clark
Last week, a video surfaced of an odd-looking aircraft taking off from a snowy airfield in Vermont. On first appearances, the aircraft looks like a standard 4 seat general aviation aircraft, but this one came with a few differences.
The aircraft sits higher off the ground and has eight small rotor blades sitting on the end of each wing. What you will not see on first glance is that it is entirely powered by two batteries.
Behind this aircraft is a team comprised almost entirely of engineers and aviation geeks. They have decided to throw their hat into the ring of the vastly expanding eVTOL start-up crowd. The man behind this project is not an aviation veteran, but an engineer — Kyle Clark.
After working on a few engineering contracts for electric vehicle companies, Kyle was exposed to the ins-and-outs of electric propulsion and eVTOLs and started talking to helicopter companies to gauge the state of the market.
“I started thinking ‘We could do this a lot better on our own’ and got to work developing our own electric aircraft.” – he told us.
He brought together a team of engineers – including Austin Meyers, the developer of the de-facto flight simulation software X Plane – to design a VTOL from a unique perspective.
The team at Beta Technologies wants to solve the problem of how to create the batteries and necessary charging infrastructure to make eVTOLs viable. And unlike many other start-up eVTOL manufacturers, Beta Technologies has secured funding and a launch customer in the form of the NASDAQ-listed Biotech firm United Therapeutics.
We sat down with Kyle Clark to find out what sets the company apart, electric propulsion and the deal with United Therapeutics.
VI: Did your background in electrical engineering lead you into the VTOL market?
“Absolutely. Aviation has always been my passion and I have flown for most of my life. Professionally, I started businesses doing power electronics and developing control systems for wind and solar farms.
“Naturally the technological knowledge about batteries transfers over to the electric-vehicle market. This led me to work on projects for Tesla and Samsung and after that, I was lucky enough to get introduced to helicopter companies to help develop propulsion systems for them.
“After this, I started thinking ‘We could do this a lot better on our own’ and started developing our own electric aircraft.”
VI: Do you think your electronics background gives you a leg-up over other eVTOL start-ups?
“I think so. The people really making a dent here are established aviation companies like Airbus, Boeing and Embraer. However, we have an advantage with our understanding of electric propulsion and battery storage – which is still quite a new prospect to aviation.
“This is the problem we are trying to solve at Beta Technologies. The other issues with eVTOLs concern aerodynamics, navigation and control which are problems that are a little less unique and are issues across all of aviation, no matter the type of aircraft.
“The one thing the legacy aviation companies will have a leg-up on are the processes for certification.
“There is still a lot of aptitude in aviation companies regarding power electronics, but they have been generally working on a smaller scale. eVTOLs need more power than that. When you start working on a megawatt scale with eVTOL, you run into more problems that require super-high reliability. We are well positioned to solve this problem.”
VI: So, the legacy manufacturers have an advantage due to their regulation experience?
“They have a leg-up because they have the processes in place for certifying, but I do not think they have a leg-up regarding time-to-certification. It is a more reliable road to certification due to the number of processes they have in place. They have a defined path, but not necessarily the most efficient.
“I would say there is not necessarily a time advantage for us, but rather there is a parity. But they have an advantage in established process and relationships. What we lose there we make up in specific aptitude in the hardest part of the development phase which is in the electric propulsion and battery storage.”
VI: How did you secure the deal with United Therapeutics?
“We were lucky enough to do some sub-projects for them doing analysis of propulsion systems. When I had the opportunity to spend some time with Martine Rothblatt, the CEO of United Therapeutics, we came up with this proposal to design an eVTOL and to fly it across the country.
“The reason for this is to expose the real hard problems that eVTOL will have navigating the FAA, licensing, operational restrictions and of course airworthiness.
“It will also help solve issues of mobile charging and be a proving ground for VTOLs in our airspace. These are all things just as challenging as developing the aircraft itself.
“Developing the aircraft is seen as one of the biggest challenges by a lot of people but it is actually one of the easier things. Having a mobile recharging system that supply 1000V charge on demand is, however, no easy task.”
VI: What about the recharging pads?
“The recharging pads are a critical part of eVTOL deployment. The one thing we have done a bit differently than other manufacturers is that we look at the recharging pad as a utility-grid style asset, providing frequency regulation (short term power) and voltage management.
“That is something that is taken from my past life doing grid-energy storage and working on distribution and transmission projects to accommodate higher transmission electricity loads.
“We have also designed the recharging pad so that it utilises reclaimed aircraft batteries which cuts the price of the project a lot. So far, we have built a megawatt-scale recharging pad that will be deployed in Burlington, Vermont and we plan to put in 51 charging pads across the East Coast that will also supply ancillary grid services as well as recharging services.”
VI: Is this all part of the United Therapeutics deal?
“A good portion of it is but some of it is being developed independently.”
VI: Are you envisioning other uses for the eVTOL?
Absolutely. First off, the aircraft we have shown publicly is a testbed platform for developing technologies so the flight controller, the propulsion systems, battery and monitoring systems and avionics that are on the testbed will be carried over to our commercial variant.
“The commercial version of the eVTOL will be about twice the size of our testbed and have far greater operational aptitude.
“Initially the aircraft will be transporting organs for United Therapeutics, but we are looking closely at other opportunities in the market place for the aircraft further down the line. I also think that having an aircraft that can fly within the current national airspace is the right first-step for eVTOL and the aircraft we are developing can do that.”
VI: So, the aircraft is fully in-line with current standards? No experimental certification?
“During the certification process the aircraft will temporarily have a special R&D experimental airworthiness certificate, but that is the path to a fully certified aircraft which is of course the goal and plan for the new aircraft.
“There are obviously diversions from existing standards that do not take into consideration batteries and motors of this magnitude. For most FAA standards this is completely true, specifically, regarding the operational limitations for the aircraft.
“I think a lot of people are making the mistake of assuming there will be regulatory changes regarding eVTOLs soon. Somebody has to be the first to go out and establish their aircraft in the current climate and gain confidence with the FAA first.”
VI: Why did you keep the project under wraps for so long?
“Mostly because public disclosure is just a big distraction. Our team is made almost entirely of engineers – only one person on the team is not an engineer. I think we would rather be focused on flying and developing the aircraft than trying to create artificial excitement about it.
“We are generally just reaching out and showing to people who can give us insight and feedback.
VI: What have we got to look forward to this year?
“Later this year we are going to reveal our production aircraft for the world to see. It is going to be pretty awesome.
“That is what we have planned. We do not want to be one of these companies that reveals a concept drawing and has nothing else to show. We want to wait until we know the aircraft works as we describe it.”