Snow Can't Stop the Edward Scissorhands of Flying Cars

 wired.com  01/10/2019 14:00:00 

Plattsburgh, New York, is a tough place to be outside in early January. The small city sits on the western shore of Lake Champlain, 20 miles south of the Canadian border. I’ve just arrived with Kyle Clark and a few of his colleagues, after a quick flight in a 40-year-old Cessna from Burlington, Vermont, on the other side of the lake. It’s snowing, and as we shuffle across the mostly abandoned former Air Force base toward a secluded hangar, I ask Clark if the weather might ice today’s flight plans.

He looks at me and laughs, opening the hangar door. “Not a chance.”

It’s no surprise that Clark—tall, athletic, copiously tattooed, and a former pro hockey player—doesn’t mind the winter weather. But these seem like conditions that would threaten the test flight of a rather complex, entirely new, fully electric aircraft. One whose eight motors and rotors must work in computerized synchrony to keep the ship aloft and true, whether going up, down, or forward.

Clark will have none of such worries. He bounds into the cavernous building that once housed B-52 bombers and introduces me to the Ava XC. The gleaming white contraption, with stilt-like landing gear and eight propellers jutting out in every direction, looks like what Tony Stark would build if he had an Edward Scissorhands phase. It is, in fact, the prototype that Clark’s company, Beta Technologies, has built to not only probe the challenges of electric aviation, but also prove it has the aerospace knowhow itself to compete in the crowded, yet-to-be-realized market for battery-powered vertical takeoff and landing aircraft—what you might call flying cars.

Clark’s version, though, appears to be further along than most. It’s one of the few designs relying heavily on a conventional wing to boost efficiency in horizontal flight, and it's the largest known eVTOL aircraft to fly yet. More importantly, it’s the only one with a confirmed launch customer providing funding. The mostly carbon fiber, 4,000-pound aircraft holds two battery packs totaling 124 kWh. The 34-foot wing sits between outriggers supporting the octet of 143-horsepower permanent-magnet motors and propellers, which pivot from horizontal to 90-degrees straight up. The two layers of counter-rotating props operate independently, so if one layer loses power, the other will keep the Ava in the air—one of many redundancies and safety measures in the aircraft. The funky flyer has a 172 mph top speed and a range of 150 miles.

In the hangar, Clark’s team gets to work preparing the craft for the morning’s test flight. Beta, until now working in secret, has executed 175 of these so far. The plan for the 176th is to position the rotors 70 degrees up from horizontal, to gauge Ava’s stability during the transition from vertical to horizontal flight and back.

The Harvard-educated Clark created Beta in 2017, on the heels of multiple electronics and software startups. (The company name comes from his nickname in college—he was the nerdiest jock of the bunch, apparently.) Beta isn’t overly invested in the much-hyped air taxi market, though. “The goal of this aircraft was to elicit critical thinking about electric aviation,” says Clark, who paid for his pilot’s license with his hockey signing bonus. “The best way to do that was to build something. So we partnered with the company that became our launch customer to create this aircraft, and attempt to fly it across the country.” No better way, he figured, to expose the technical, logistical, and regulatory problems that populate a field now home to more than 130 companies, including Larry Page-funded Kitty Hawk, Airbus, Joby, and Bell.

On the Ava's planned cross-country flight, the Beta team will follow along in their mobile charging vehicle, a converted tour bus outfitted with generators, solar panels, and an expanding landing pad on the roof.

Eric Adams

That launch customer is United Therapeutics, a Washington, DC-based biotech outfit developing manufactured organs for human transplant. Its founder, Martine Rothblatt (creator of SiriusXM Satellite Radio), has put an undisclosed but substantial sum into Beta, and wants to use its final product to get those organs from factory to hospital. “This technology has the potential for having the lowest carbon footprint and being the most adaptable to the organ delivery needs that we have,” says Rothblatt, who’s also a pilot and recently led the conversion of a Robinson R44 to the world’s first full-sized electric helicopter. “I need to work free of existing constraints, while still being practical in creating things that work,” she says. “Beta has that kind of freethinking culture, but it’s also a disciplined maker culture.”

Beta is stocked with similarly well-credentialed innovators. Its advisory panel includes Segway inventor Dean Kamen and John Abele, founder of medical device manufacturer Boston Scientific. Its battery specialist, Herman Wiegman, was the lead energy storage researcher at GE Global Research. Wireless sensor engineer Chris Townsend also developed that technology for Bell Helicopters and the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet. David Churchill invented the calibration system for accelerometers in the iPhone. Sensor expert Steve Arms founded LORD Microstrain; and software engineer Artur Adib came from Twitter and Magic Leap. The simulation and modeling technology comes from Austin Meyer, creator of the high-fidelity flight simulator X-Plane.

Beta intends to attempt that cross-country flight, going from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to Santa Monica, California, this spring or summer. Clark—the team’s only test pilot—will likely fly three 60 to 100-mile legs a day, stopping for an hour of charging between them. The team will follow along in Beta’s mobile charging vehicle, a converted tour bus outfitted with generators, solar panels, and an expanding landing pad on the roof. In the same timeframe, Clark will reveal the final configuration of Beta’s production aircraft. The flight controls and most of the tech will be based on that developed for the Ava, he says, but the size, shape, and precise propulsion strategy will change.

Before that cross-country flight can take off, Beta plans to run another 50 test flights or so. The exam set for today, however, looks to be stymied by a severed screw in one of the motor assemblies. The crew fixes it, then finds another. Clark, crawling over the aircraft alongside his team, decides to replace all the fasteners with higher-strength versions. Eventually, about two hours behind schedule, the crew rolls Ava out of the hangar into the snow. They climb aboard two SUVs and tow it out to the flight line, with Clark at the controls.

In between runs of the snow plows clearing the 12,000-foot runway (long enough to serve as an emergency landing spot for the Space Shuttle), Clark spins up the motors. He accelerates down the centerline. Beta’s chase vehicles race alongside, loaded up with engineers tracking telemetry on their laptops. After about 10 seconds, the aircraft lifts off and glides in a steady, straight line, far from the wobbly, hesitant hovering many eVTOL companies have demonstrated so far. Even more remarkably, it actually sounds like Edward Scissorhands in action, but it’s not nearly as loud as a helicopter, good news for those worried that air taxis will be aural menaces. (A straight vertical jump will likely make more noise.) Clark sets it back down, turns around at the end of the strip, and makes another pass.

About halfway down in the other direction, the engineers lose their telemetry signal from the aircraft. A few passes later, a roll sensor in the fly-by-wire control system signals a failure. Clark calls an end to the day’s testing, saying they’ve got the data they needed. He also notes that one of Beta’s current challenges is tuning the code to better decipher between noise and an actual bad sensor.

To date, Ava has achieved flight times of roughly 18 minutes in a hover and more than an hour while tethered, a top speed of 72 knots, and a maximum altitude of 100 feet—and is regularly improving on each. It’s hard to compare that progress against other, largely secretive, eVTOL programs. If this market proves out, though, it will make room for plenty of manufacturers, and thousands of aircraft.

Watching Ava float across the airport, I forget about the falling snow, and about the skeptics dismissing the air taxi industry as cash-burning vaporware. Even with today’s testing hiccups, Beta’s aircraft looks a fine ride for a human organ—or even an entire person—trying to get where they’re going.

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