On site in Vermont: BETA's aerial maneuvers in the cloud

• 850 words

People have always looked to the skies with wonder. Flying represented freedom long before the first aircraft was designed, built, and successfully flown. Then, on December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers completed the first heavier than air flight in the Kitty Hawk Flyer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The flight lasted 12 seconds, traveling 120 feet. By the end of the day, it was blown over by a gust of wind and damaged beyond repair. And in that moment the world changed, the first aviation startup was born.

The progress that humans have made since then is unprecedented. By 1924, a plane had been piloted around the world. Nine years later, the Boeing 247 was the first modern airliner to take flight. In 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a Bell X-1. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first man to pilot and orbital space craft, and by 1969 we had landed on the moon. It is very hard to imagine a world without flight. It has changed everything — business, politics, medicine, travel, war, and cultural awareness. But as air travel has become ubiquitous, it has also become one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions. There is a tremendous opportunity to change the way that we travel and transport goods, while having lesser impact on our planet. Kyle Clark, CEO of BETA Technologies, believes that the solution is electric.

BETA is located in South Burlington, Vermont. A small town with a population just under 20,000, famous for Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Their campus sits directly on Burlington International Airport, a hangar that feels simultaneously like a startup and a machine shop. It’s here that BETA has developed and built the ALIA-250c, an electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (eVTOL), which can travel about 400 kilometers carrying cargo loads up to 635 kg at 270 kilometers per hour, all on a single charge (250 miles, 6,000 pounds, and 170 mph for my American readers). Vertical takeoff and landing, combined with a robust, modular charging network, are changing the way that we are think about point-to-point deliveries, last-mile logistics, and commercial flight.

At their core, they are a propulsion company, and as such, have spent a lot of time thinking about plane design and aerodynamics. It is where they have found their edge. The electric motor that provides forward thrust for the ALIA is located at the back of the plane, which is very different from a conventional aircraft. Positioning the engine in the back makes the aircraft more aerodynamic, accelerating the boundary layer of fluids, leaving a low wake, which means that there is minimal wasted energy. This is only possible with an electric motor, because it’s thermally efficient, it doesn’t require much cooling, and it doesn’t require aspiration to breathe and burn fuel. I think that Manon Belzile, BETA’s VP of Propulsion, has said it best, “The Holy Grail for turbo machinery efficiency is be above 30%. We’re talking 95% efficiency with these machines”.

Their electric motors are not only efficient, but incredibly simple machines with very few moving parts. Simplicity means that everything is easier from manufacture to maintenance. Kyle can often be heard around the office quoting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away.”

The goal is to make each motor as light and powerful as possible. With every ounce that is saved, the ALIA can fly a little bit further on a single charge. Simple design and relentless testing will allow them to quickly prototype, iterate, and scale to production.

Getting to this point requires data collection, processing, and collaboration at a massive scale. For example, whenever new code is released, it goes through code check, simulation, small scale aircraft (a 1/5 model), iron bird, and only then the ALIA. The headers, data, data rate all need to be parsed by the same tools and available to everyone at the company as well as partners. This is where AWS and the power of the cloud play an important role in the electrification of flight.

It can be hard to grasp how much data is actually being captured. For instance, more than 900 data points at a rate of 100 times per second are collected during each test flight. This information is used to create, update, and improve plant models of the aircraft, which BETA can use to re-fly the ALIA in a simulated environment, and collect even more data. It’s a virtuous cycle, where data from the real world, as well as simulations, are used to really accelerate aircraft development.

You won’t be taking an electric flight from Burlington to Mexico City in the near future, at least not commercially or quickly. Traditional jet engines still have a significant advantage when it comes to moving people and cargo long distances affordably. However, we should not overlook the fact that companies like United Therapeutics are investing in eVTOL aircraft. The potential impacts on point-to-point cargo transfer are enormous, and they get us one step closer to a low emission future.

Now, Go Build!