Photo: Alia on the runway. Photo by Eric Adams.
by CB Hall, Vermont Business Magazine Estimates place aviation's share of the blame for global warming at about 3.5 percent, measured in terms of the differential between incoming energy and the energy radiated back to space as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.
That 3.5 percent may not seem like much, but, according to ourworldindata.org, the volume of aviation-borne carbon-dioxide emissions has increased by 4 to 5 percent yearly since 2010, while aviation's share of total carbon-dioxide emissions from all sources has likewise been increasing.
It's not a pretty picture.
In a hangar at Burlington International Airport, and in a factory in Williston, however, Beta Technologies is going full speed ahead with design work and manufacturing that could provide an alternative – albeit a limited one – to petroleum-powered air travel.
Beta's engineering team is striving to win a race to develop an electrically powered zero-emissions aircraft.
In a recent interview with VBM, founder and CEO Kyle Clark said that the first applications of Beta's electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft will be the transportation of natural and manufactured organs for transplant patients, and a US Air Force cargo and logistics mission.
Photo: CEO Kyle Clark. Photo by Eric Adams.
More tantalizingly, perhaps, the technology will also see some application in passenger transportation.
EVTOL aircraft will not be replacing Boeing and Airbus jumbo jets anytime soon, but, Clark said, “I believe that between 2026 and 2030 we would start to see the bulk of air taxis using electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft.”
In addition to its facilities in Vermont, Beta leases a 40,000-square-foot hangar at Plattsburgh International Airport, where it has conducted the bulk of test flights for its prototype, named Alia.
[Alia gets a helicopter airlift across Lake Champlain, rather than flying on its own propulsion.]
In a January 19 interview, Clark said that Beta's payroll stood at 177.
Incorporated in 2017, Beta is also increasing its footprint at BTV.
The company has just completed a 14,000-square-foot addition on its hangar there.
Further, Clark reported, “We just got permitted for a 22,000-square-foot addition we're building on the north side of the same hangar, towards the main terminal.”
He also expected expansion at the leased Williston facility, which has been producing recharging systems.
“We put just under one million in leasehold improvements to the facility for our production,” he noted. “We expect to be there indefinitely.”
The plant will also produce unmanned small aircraft that, he said, are “just a little bit smaller and have a different purpose [from the eVTOL]. But that's not our chief focus.”
Photo: Beta recharging site at night. Photo by Eric Adams.
The Virtues of Simplicity
Funding for the eVTOL's development is coming largely from United Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical and biotech firm based in Maryland and North Carolina.
The mission of UT's Organ Manufacturing Group, according to its website, is “to manufacture an unlimited supply of transplantable organs before the end of the decade.”
That will include both modified organs from pigs and organs constructed in part with 3-D printers.
The high-tech printers also constitute part of operations at Beta, where they turn out “a whole lot of cooling components for electric motors, as well as airfoils and molds for carbon fiber parts,” said Clark, who grew up in Chittenden County and went on to a degree in engineering at Harvard.
Whatever the reliance on space-age manufacturing techniques, however, the engineer-entrepreneur sees design simplicity as a virtue.
Alia uses a direct-drive system to power its propeller and rotors. That means essentially that no gearing modifies the engine's power before it gets to the propeller or rotor.
The design makes Alia – which vaguely resembles a small helicopter – lightweight and more reliable, unburdened as it is by additional failure-prone mechanical components.
Photo: Alia in the air. Photo by Eric Adams.
But Clark clarified that, unlike a helicopter, Alia doesn't hover. It maintains forward momentum at all times, even during takeoff and landing.
Each of the four “corners” of the aircraft – which weighs only two to three tons – houses a motor to drive the vertical-lift rotors that get the craft off the ground.
Since the motors can run at different speeds, the rotors spin correspondingly, as the circumstances demand. That removes the need for a differential distribution of torque generated by a single motor – again simplifying the overall design of the craft.
It has a range of 288 miles.
Clark pointed to three major advantages that Beta's product will have over today's aircraft.
First, there's the obvious plus of eliminating fossil fuels and thus reducing operational emissions to zero.
That, he stressed, “is a big, important factor for many businesses that have fleets of aircraft.”
He also noted the reduction in maintenance – which, he said, is “massively improved by cold propulsion.”
Then there's operational flexibility, too.
“You can go directly to the hospital or distribution facility,” he explained. “No one likes going to the airport.”
“All those organs have to be transported.”
Alia is the successor to Beta's Ava prototype, which Clark described as a proof-of-concept vehicle.
“It showed that we could fly a distributed-propulsion, all electric, VTOL aircraft... When we successfully did that, we earned a $48 million contract from UT to design a new aircraft, Alia, and we've actually built two of them now.”
UT has also purchased a number of the recharging stations Beta makes in Williston.
“We have a similarly sized contract from the Air Force, and we have two other contracts that I unfortunately can't talk about. And then we have local investors that have put about $53 million into the company while we develop the aircraft.”
He anticipated getting Federal Aviation Administration certification for Alia.
“It'll be about a two-and-a-half- to three-year process, that we've already started, to understand what modifications or changes will be needed for them to accept it. So far it appears that the baseline design is certifiable. It is stable and flies well.”
“We anticipate being able to sell [Alia] to the Air Force in 2022, and to our other customers starting in 2024… The Air Force has a different path to certification, which is a little less friction. It will lead into deploying squadrons of aircraft in 2023.”
He said he expected UT to start flying Alia “between 2025 and 2026. They have anchored on having 60 aircraft deployed in 2026, and 100 aircraft deployed yearly from 2027 onward.”
When VBM expressed surprise at the size of the UT commitment, he noted that thousands of people in the United States die each year while waiting for transplants – about 20 people a day, according to the American Transplant Foundation.
Anywhere from 108 to 120 thousand individuals are waiting for organ transplants at any one time, according to online sources.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, about 40,000 transplants are done nationwide each year, meaning that many thousands wind up waiting – and maybe dying.
“All those organs have to be transported,” Clark pointed out that it’s the weak link in the transplant process.
No Public Demonstration Flight - Yet
Beta faces plenty of competition.
Uber, for example, is touting its Uber Elevate program, which “is developing shared air transportation—planned for 2023—between suburbs and cities, and ultimately within cities. We’re working with our Elevate Network partners to launch fleets of small, electric VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne,” Uber's website reports under the headline “The future of urban mobility.”
Whether the business model will be relevant to a rural state like Vermont, or to applications Clark foresees for Alia, is unclear.
“Each of the major aerospace companies has a program,” Clark said. “We're one of four companies that have flying prototypes, and to my knowledge we're the only company that has meaningful contracts for the use of the aircraft.”
But – VBM asked the obvious question – what of air traffic control, once all those eVTOLs join the array of other flying devices in what once was the exclusive province of birds?
“As the traffic density increases, so will the technology that enables less aircraft separation,” he said. “Both NASA and the FAA have meaningful programs focused on this.”
But while aircraft like Alia show great potential, those who foresee electric aircraft sidelining today's jetliners need a reality check.
“There's a physical limit to what you can do in a VTOL aircraft with this technology,” Clark said. “We have the biggest aircraft in this space right now,” he added.
He anticipated building eVTOL craft with a capacity of “six passengers, maybe up to nine. The problem is you hit regulatory limits pretty quickly. We're not crossing that bridge yet.”
Asked whether eVTOLs will be chargeable at home, much as electric cars are, he likewise expressed some caution.
“Ultimately, yes. We have small chargers in the lab right now, on 240-volt circuits, but it would take a day to charge [the plane] up.”
While a 2019 article on thedrive.com spoke of an “upcoming cross-country flight” to demonstrate the capabilities of Beta's aircraft, such plans have not yet materialized.
“We've done demonstrations ... for our customers,” Clark said. “We haven't done any public demonstration flights.”
Asked when the general public might get a view of Beta's product in action, he said, “Obviously with COVID and everything ... it's an awkward world right now, so I don't know when.”
It can be safely said, though, that a great many people in Vermont and elsewhere are eager to see what Beta's technology will produce.
CB Hall is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.