Electric propulsion: What’s happening on the ground is starting to happen up in the air
In this episode of Vantage Point, I speak with Kevin Noertker, Co-Founder and CEO of Ampaire, Inc. an electric airplane startup based out of Hawthorne, California in the Greater Los Angeles area. Located at Hawthorne Municipal Airport, they are in good company along with the Tesla Design Center and SpaceX – an epicenter of innovation in aerospace and electric vehicles.
In June, Ampaire began its flight test program on its first commercial aircraft, the Ampaire Electric EEL, a twin-engine Cessna 337 Skymaster modified to fly with one conventional combustion engine and one electric motor. It is the largest hybrid-electric aircraft flying today, which is now offered for sale to general aviation pilots. Later this year, the Electric EEL is set to enter flight trials on commercial routes with Mokulele Airlines in Hawaii. As regulators and air transport companies around the world try to reduce carbon emissions, this bold step toward electric aviation can possibly amount to the giant leap the sector has been looking for.
What got you and your team started? What was the grand vision?
For me, it all started back in late 2015, though the company we founded got going in early 2016. It began actually when my now co-founder and chief technology officer, Cory Combs, reached out to me just saying, “Hey, let’s grab lunch. I have an idea I want to talk to you about.”
He had been absolutely passionate about aviation, airplanes, and designing planes. Ever since he was a student back at Stanford and nearly got run over by one of the first Teslas (because it was so quiet), he had this crazy fascination with electric vehicles as well. But, pairing those two together – airplanes and electric vehicles – for a long time just wasn’t going to work. There are so many technology barriers as well as regulatory hurdles. But it was the technology side that he was looking at.
Around the 2009 timeframe, when Cory and I first met at Northrop Grumman as early engineers, though he was passionate about these things, there was never even a serious thought about it. But, over the next five or so years in just reviewing the trade studies on his own that by mid-2015 the stars were starting to align. And so, when he reached out to me for us to grab lunch, he pitched this crazy idea for all-electric aviation…. for the highest performance electric aircraft that you could imagine. So, you’ve seen a lot of news and hype around vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) planes. That was part of this original vision for what are the amazing futuristic opportunities that will be uniquely enabled by electric vehicle technology.
So, we started out with that North Star vision for high performance electric aircraft and very rapidly focused on a pathway that enables us to bring practical, compelling electric aircraft to the market, so that we’re not just building toys for the uber wealthy, or business jet alternatives, or ways for people to skip over traffic. We’re building something what has a positive impact on the world around us, that connects communities, that’s affordable for everyone not just the business jet users. Really capturing the big value proposition in aviation.
For me personally, I pick my roles in companies, and in starting this company with Cory, we based it on three criteria. I’m always looking for the most meaningful, challenging, and visible problems in the world to solve. I believe that this is certainly one of the most meaningful problems in aviation. It’s incredibly challenging to start a company from scratch and certainly one as forward-looking as electric aviation. And it’s visible, because it touches so many people’s lives. For me, it hit on all cylinders. So, I just didn’t even hesitate to get it started in 2016.
If you kind of zoom in on the communities around an airport, these communities are up in arms about aviation, oftentimes feeling like it’s a burden to them – feeling like the airport is more of a burden than an asset. This dissatisfaction in the communities is being driven by the noise and pollution that come from aircraft. And so, communities try to shut down or limit operations at municipal airports around the country and that’s just a shame. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The electrification of planes reduces the noise and pollution. And so, we think we’ll be able to turn these great assets back into benefits rather than burdens on the communities as well.
No doubt you’ve got a lot of challenges,… what about the technical aspect of things, how is that going? I mean I can just imagine,… fuel cells, batteries,…. There are some real difficulties there. What are you running into?
Our mission is to be the world’s most trusted developer of practical, compelling electric aircraft. So, “Trusted. Practical. Compelling.” is the frame for how we approach these challenges. How do I bring to market a trusted, practical, compelling aircraft given the technology constraints, the regulatory constraints, and the public perception constraints around aviation.
In terms of technical constraints, this is effectively energy storage and the density of that energy storage. In other words, energy per unit weight. In batteries, you’re looking at how many watt hours per kilogram at a cell or a pack level. It’s analogous to fuel cells. Certainly, the technology right now for batteries is a limiting factor on the range that a fully electric plane can fly.
You can get sufficient power out of those packs generally. So, power is not the restriction. You can easily take off with sufficient power with these energy storage sources. But the range is really what ends up being the limiting factor. Beyond the limitation from the technology, you also have the regulatory issues and public perception, which are challenges. Now, these challenges are in place for a good reason. Regulations keep us safe. The regulators, the FAA in the United States, requires a high level of safety and reliability for vehicles.
And so, the challenge is in taking existing technology and sufficiently demonstrate that it meets the strict safety requirements of aviation. We’re not going to get any leniency on safety. Safety is first priority in the industry and it’s absolutely a core requirement. And so, that’s a challenge from the perspective that while these technologies have been applied in ground transportation more so than in aviation where the requirements and safety regulations are very different. In many cases, they are stricter than in ground transportation. All the while, we have the constraint of weight and energy density. You can do things to package a battery to make it safer, but then that could drive more weight into the system. So, it’s this multi-variable optimization that you’re working with.
And then, finally, one of the challenges is on the public perception side and the customer acceptance. The question being, if you built a fully electric plane would people trust enough to fly in it? What we’ve found is that many people – I mean there are people certainly very excited to fly in fully electric planes – but many want to see it proven out first. They want to see a hybrid electric, or a parallel, like we’re flying here in California. They want to see redundancy and an increased level of safety built into the system, or at least a perceived increased level of safety, so that they can then grow comfortable with the product. And that, again, within our mission of “Trusted. Practical. Compelling.” This is how we have found our way to what we believe is a product that can be trusted, that is very practical in using existing technology, and serves a very compelling market needs in regional aviation.
Right. You’ve not really come up with something entirely new. The airframe is traditional, but the propulsion is electric. In this way, you’ve managed to jump the certification hurdle of a completely new and unproven aircraft. You probably would’ve had a much bigger challenge on your hands. But, that’s not the case here.
Correct. And that’s been by design for us. We decided that starting with retrofits, kind of like the Tesla roadster approach where they retrofitted a Lotus Elise with an electric drive train, was the best approach. Though you lose some of the performance that you would otherwise have in a new fully-optimized design, you can gain significant benefit in the simplicity, in the comfort level that customers have, as well as in the ability to move it through the regulatory hurdle.
So, going for the supplemental type certificate rather than the full new type certificate enables you to move more readily through that process. It’s certainly the first step, kind of the crawl, walk, run approach (or the crawl, walk, run, fly approach!) to integrating electric aircraft for common use. Putting ourselves 15 years into the future, you’re going to have new build planes, certified and flying around. You already have a number of them that are in the design phase and some early prototypes doing flight demonstrations. New design planes certainly are in our roadmap, but the key question is how do you get there? And to get there in a practical way is, we think, a critical first step.
What is the range at the moment that you can fly?
We’ve designed this first plane, which is our retrofit Cessna 337 Skymaster, to have a useful range of 200 nautical miles (nm). You can imagine quite a bit of design flexibility where we’re trading weights between battery weights, payload weight, and fuel weight that you’re putting into the plane. So, our baseline here is the 200 nm range, which effectively for regional airlines, their longest routes are generally about 100 nautical miles. The vast majority of their routes are less than a hundred nautical miles. And so, we’re able to hit those routes round-trip with this 200 nm range. It’s again by design that we’ve placed our range there.
I presume, so far your discussions have been with FAA? Have you gone international in the sense of EASA, Transport Canada, the Australians, or Asia as well?
Absolutely. This is a global opportunity. We’re very focused on FAA certification, but have had conversations with each of the other groups. We have employees based in the EU, in Australia, in China, working these conversations as well as some business development. And our team is very actively engaged in the global conversation around this.
We even helped kick off one of the SAE committees around charging standards. We identified one of the early challenges that ground electric vehicles ran into and still sometimes have, which is inconsistent charging standards across the world, with the hope of creating a standard set of charging interfaces and requirements. We have helped kick that off last November. I suppose the first meeting even was at Oshkosh last summer. So very, very active in the global conversation.
How is the technology expected to evolve over time that will require further regulatory engagement? How rapid is the technology expected to evolve?
When we consider a solution in technology and look at the implications, it effectively leads to either longer range flights or larger aircraft. Right, those are kind of the two areas where you would anticipate the growth outcome to be in. So, for the longer range flights – we’ll limit the discussion to battery energy density – you’re looking at about a 3 to 5% per year growth in battery energy density. Some project more aggressively than that. We think 5% is a realistic baseline to set and plan for. So, that energy density will enable you to increase the range of an all-electric plane, now flying only the shortest of routes. But, projecting out 10 or 15 years, you very well may have these planes flying upwards of 300 to 500 nautical miles.
When you consider – like, draw a histogram of how far passengers fly on average, so not just the flights, but really what the passengers are doing – you see that again the vast majority of people are flying routes that are less than 500 nautical miles, a lot of them around 300. If you have a 300 nm range electric or hybrid electric plane, where the operating cost is significantly lower, and the takeoff and landing distances could be lower as well, you now open up a whole new realm of viability for more routes to more destinations than ever before.
And that’s really core to Ampaire’s vision for the future of aviation. It is the opening up those new opportunities in the regional air travel market, and certainly we’ll be seeing that as the technology progresses.
As far as payload is concerned with this particular aircraft type – the Skymaster – are there any restrictions at the moment, and is this going to change, improve if you will, over time?
It will improve over time, because we will be able to have more energy stored in the battery system. However, by design we have set the aircraft with an expectation that it’ll have either a six- or four-seat configuration, depending on the customer desire. It’s originally a six-seat plane and so we’re maintaining payload for customers who desire that. Similarly, the nine-seat planes – your Caravans and Kodiaks, and a few others that fly regional routes – those planes you’ll also be able to maintain payload. It’s really a trade between the payload and the battery.
As you get the higher energy density batteries in there, then you can fly further on fully electric. Or, you can trade off some of the battery weights for greater payload. But baseline, we’re holding the payload of these aircraft consistent with their original design.
The engine, of course, is different. Is that all your design or have you partnered with a manufacturer of electric engines?
We are the engineering house architecting the system – and so the systems engineers as well as the integrators. We are relying on the electric vehicle supply chain for generating all the great technology. Whether that’s batteries, motors, inverters, or other power electronics. We’re integrating those components out of the supply chain into a system, which we have engineered and architected on our own.
What’s been the customer perception so far? I’ve seen a news clip about PAX (Personal Airline Exchange) just having placed an order for 50 Ampaire EEL Electric Aircraft. What are they looking for? What are some of their criteria in terms of making that decision?
We’ve talked to a wide variety of airlines. Airlines that are already in operation, some others that are just coming online. Just like there are many types of aircraft, it’s because there are a wide variety of desires from a customer standpoint.
What we’re finding is a consistency in the value proposition alignment with customers across the board, being reduced operating costs. If you look at the total cost of ownership for operating an aircraft, this is really driven by fuel and maintenance. Upfront cost matters and depreciation matters, but fuel and maintenance are the major drivers. So, each customer is very interested in that low direct operating cost point. There is more differentiation between customers on what their expectations are, as far as the payload or capacity of an aircraft. Some are excited about the four- and six-seat planes. Those are looking at more of an on-demand service offering, like on-demand charter experience for aviation.
So, imagine using an app to call a plane, effectively almost like an Uber or Lyft. The folks looking at that type of application and business model are interested in the smaller plane, like Electric EEL Skymaster conversion, which PAX placed orders for. Whereas you have others whom we’re coordinating and collaborating with, like Mokulele Airlines out in Hawaii. And we got, I believe, 14 letters of interest from various airlines.
But with Mokulele Airlines, they operate a fleet of Caravans that generally operate with a 10-seat configuration. And so, for airlines like that, we may need to scale up to a larger plane, which is obviously in our roadmap as well. And then, you have others like Widerøe over in Norway, who operate larger planes like the Dash 8 that operate in 40-seat configuration.
Now, that’s a challenge, because within existing regulations, the only regulation – at least in the United States – that has been modified to allow for certification of electric planes is Part 23 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, or FARs. Part 23 limits the payload capacity up to 19 passengers. So, nothing more than 19 passengers is allowed in the category, which makes those 40-passenger Dash 8’s out of the regulation realm for us. We anticipate that will eventually change, but we’ll have to watch and see as regulatory changes move slowly.
To round off the discussion, what would be your biggest challenge at this point in time?
I believe the biggest challenge right now are the public and regulatory perceptions on the safety of an electric vehicle system in a plane, likely focusing in on the safety of battery packs and their methods for being integrated and used in the plane. It’s an area we’re focusing on. We’ve had no issues. We’ve been very, very diligent about it, but I anticipate it’ll continue to be an area we have to focus on, because of the safety critical nature of the component and the public perceptions and concerns over batteries, and some issues they’ve had with cars and phones, or perceived issues that they’ve had.
Yes, especially considering the lithium battery flare ups and burns in flight. That’s a major issue. We spoke of the vision, what would be the milestones in the years ahead? What would you consider to be some important goals and objectives going forward?
Number one is to get a second version of our plane flying on customer routes. So, that’s flying on Mokulele’s route, experimentally starting later this year. Beyond that, we’re going to be pushing toward our certification. So, that’s a supplemental type certificate under the FARs for our first vehicle. We’re targeting to receive that approval by the end of 2021.
In the meanwhile, we’ll also be scaling to larger planes. So, the world is not all six-seat planes. Certainly, the larger ones are very interesting. And so, a major goal or objective for us is to scale our product up to those larger planes, still within the Part 23 category. That’ll pretty well cover it in the next few years for us.
We do have some research and development activities related to our future new build plane designs. We’ve got two NASA contracts to do assessments on the efficiency and noise characteristics of our Tailwind vehicle. And those will be in parallel to the more practical near-term deliveries of the retrofit vehicles.
Well, quite some ambitions there and you’ve already achieved quite a lot in a short amount of time. So, congratulations to you, to Cory, and the rest of the team, Susan, and Peter as well. And, of course, you’ve got the great support from a number of partners, venture capital, and so forth. So, it’s a great thing you’ve got going.
Thank you. I really appreciate that.