As part of our new series on the future of flight, USTN speaks with Kevin Noertker, co-founder and CEO of Ampaire: a California-based company developing hybrid-electric planes that they hope will blaze the trail for an all-electric airline industry.
Kevin previously worked as a research fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an aerospace engineer at Northrop Grumman, before going on to set up Ampaire with co-founder Cory Combs in 2016. The company has already developed a hybrid electric plane capable of transporting 3 passengers or 450lbs of cargo more than 200 miles, and is now working on larger hybrid electric aircraft. Its ultimate goal is a product family of fully-electric aircraft to deliver range, endurance and speed with a minimal carbon footprint.
Ampaire has collaborated with some of the most prestigious organisations in aviation, including NASA, the US Air Force and the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (an arm of the Department of Energy). The company is now about to embark on its next exciting chapter, working with Surf Air Mobility to dramatically improve the affordability, accessibility and environmental footprint of aviation.
You’ve just been acquired by Surf Air Mobility: a platform for regional air travel. What are you most excited about for this partnership?
First, that we share a vision: to move the world forward faster with clean, quiet, economical electric aircraft, starting with hybrid electric aircraft. I’ve been talking with Sudhin Shahani, CEO of Surf Air Mobility, for more than a year. It struck both of us immediately that we see an achievable, near-term roadmap for revolutionizing air transportation in the 50 to 500 mile regional aircraft segment.
Second, as a critical component of Surf Air Mobility, we have the resources to move faster to the certification of our first products in the 9 - 19 seat commuter category. We can staff more quickly—and we’re adding top people in their engineering fields; we can accelerate the development and certification processes; we can ramp up discussions with airline customers. It’s all immensely exciting for us.
Your concept plane the Tailwind promises fully electric air travel with range and speed. What are the major technical problems that need to be overcome in order to achieve this vision?
While the fully electric Tailwind embodies our vision for the future, we are taking a very practical approach to achieving this vision. We are beginning by upgrading existing aircraft types, that already have regulatory approvals and are operated daily by our customers. That approach enables us to enter the market with practical, compelling electrified planes at significantly lower development cost and certification timeline than if we began with the Tailwind.
Regarding the development of a clean-sheet, fully electric plane like the Tailwind, the major challenge is pretty well known—battery density, which will improve over time. But there are others where a clean-sheet design is concerned: development and certification costs would dwarf what we anticipate spending on initial hybrid electric upgrades (which the market is ready for today). Time to market would be years longer than the upgrade path—we are aiming at entry into service in 2024 for our first hybrid electric product. Technical risks are a magnitude higher. Some of the new aircraft designs we see would be asking ourselves and the FAA to pioneer and certify a lot of technology all at once. Lastly all-electric designs will require a substantial investment in charging infrastructure which does not exist today. These challenges can all be overcome, but it will take time. We are committed to moving progressively in practical steps to an all-electric future.
Is the future of air travel more regional than international? Will air travel come to replace some of the roles currently filled by automobiles or trains?
Electrifying aviation is in large part a means to expand travel options over distances that today are mostly driven, and to reduce the emissions on routes that are only flown with larger planes today. Inasmuch as fuel is one of the major costs driving ticket prices, we can anticipate substantially lower airfares as we move to hybrid-electric and fully-electric aircraft. One of the rationales for our approach to the market is to make it easier to reach urban and rural destinations where the driving is onerous and time consuming. Many rural destinations with airports (thousands, in fact) lack scheduled air service and we can make that economical. In the U.S. they almost entirely lack passenger rail service with little likelihood they’ll ever obtain it.
We can certainly anticipate an expansion of regional air travel as we make it greener and lower cost. International travel, if I gaze into my crystal ball, will recover and grow. To fly long distances on electric power, we’ll need to see improvements in battery technology. So, for now, we are intensely focused on the 50 - 500 mile regional segment where we can swiftly introduce improvements.
You’re currently collaborating with NASA on a number of projects involving the Twin Otter DHC6. What accomplishments have come out of that prestigious pairing?
The Twin Otter is a sturdy, relatively simple, utilitarian airplane used the world over on shorter routes. That makes it an excellent candidate for upgrade to hybrid electric power. With support from NASA, we’ve completed a series of trade studies on a hybrid upgrade, evaluating the performance of different architectures and subsystem technologies. We’ve started planning a potential flight demonstration program.
Finally, as passengers, what changes will the advent of electric planes mean for consumer travel?
Here’s what passengers can expect in a few years. They step aboard a regional aircraft. The motors start up—they’re very quiet. The passengers are already pleased. They fly from, say, coastal California up and over the mountains to a small town where they live, saving hours on twisting roads. They find they can get back and forth to the big city for not much more than the price of driving, making it easier to conduct business, or see a medical specialist, or visit family. They are less concerned about their personal environmental footprint, because they know they are on a low-emission hybrid aircraft.
That’s just one scenario—but the bottom line is a cleaner, quicker, less expensive, more available travel option that benefits local economies and individuals.