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It’s a Plane, It’s a Drone; It’s Got the Best of Both Worlds

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Flying taxis are closer to appearing in our skies than most realize. They are already undergoing trials in different parts of the world. And India may soon join this club as an electric plane made by an IIT Madras professor and his startup co-founder revs up for field testing later this year.

How e-planes work varies upon the design. Some are more like slow-moving drones or expensive helicopters. Others behave like planes, which make them better suited for longer ranges than urban transport.

German startup Volocopter and China’s EHang, for instance, are building air taxis that are essentially large multicopter drones capable of carrying human payloads. Multicopters are slow-moving compared to planes, which is a good thing in an urban setting where they have to descend after a short run.

The problem is that their multiple sets of rotating blades guzzle power just to keep the drone-like air taxis in the air. This limits their range because the batteries would get too heavy otherwise. So, they need frequent recharging.

DESIGN DRAWBACKS
Then there are e-planes that use wings to take off, fly and land. These need to fly fast enough for the airflow to lift them and keep them aloft. The more compact the wings, the faster they have to fly. What it means is that by design they become inefficient if forced to cover short distances in cities.

That’s one reason why German startup Lilium, which has tested a five-seater e-plane, positions itself as a regional air mobility operator, providing services to nearby towns and cities rather than within cities. It is building a ‘vertiport’ in Orlando, Florida, in the US for the so-called eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft. European cities too typically have clusters of small cities within a radius of 100-200km that can be served by eVTOLs.

While Lilium has well-known investors like Tesla’s second-biggest shareholder, Baillie Gifford, its main rival, California-based Joby Aviation, is going public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company of LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga founder Mark Pincus. Joby got backing from Toyota last year in a $590 million funding round and acquired Uber Elevate, an air taxi venture of the ride-sharing firm.

Despite the huge backing for ventures like these in the US, Europe and China, there’s room for innovation by smaller startups like The ePlane Company incubated in IIT Madras. Until e-planes come into the market, nobody can be sure what’s economically viable for different market segments.

“We have a potentially better product-market fit when compared with the technologies developed so far,” says Satya Chakravarthy, an aerospace engineering professor at IIT Madras and co-founder of The ePlane Company.

The Indian startup’s two-seater e-plane is designed for aerial urban mobility, that is, short-range intracity flights. It will take off from rooftops or parking lots without requiring ‘vertiports’ like Lilium’s five-seater e-planes.

The Indian e-plane has a hybrid design that uses both rotors and wings. The rotors are for take-off and landing, while the wings are for flying fast. To borrow a line used to describe boxer Muhammad Ali, it “floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee”. More technically, it takes on board the advantages of drones and planes, while jettisoning their drawbacks. It’s fast enough for far less battery usage than a full-fledged electric multicopter like that of Volocopter. And yet, it’s slow and small enough for intracity flights.

“We are targeting a speed of 180-200kmph, which would be between that of Volocopter and Lilium e-planes,” says Chakravarthy. “We also want to keep it very compact so that it comes close to being a door-to-door service.”

A subscale prototype is set for a trial flight in a month or two. That will demonstrate the design innovation, enabling it to fly slower than what e-planes with compact wings would normally require.

PERFORMANCE MATTERS
“That’s counter-intuitive to an aerospace engineer, but we have thought through the flow field around the e-plane to get the required aero propulsion integrated performance,” says Chakravarthy, without going into detail on ePlane’s main Intellectual Property (IP) for this business use case.

The startup raised seed funding late last year to develop its IP and prototype. Larger funding round is on the anvil as it comes closer to trials. It aims to keep the cost of the E-plane below 1 crore, which would make it similar in price to a premium Range Rover or quarter the cost of the cheapest helicopter.

But more than the luxury car or helicopter services, ePlane wants to be an Uber for the skies. “An Uber ride between the airport and Electronic City in Bengaluru costs anywhere between 1,500 and 2,500 depending on the time of day. To start with, we are targeting 2x the price of an Uber ride for a 10x drop in travel time,” says Chakravarthy.

How the pricing pans out will depend on regulations. For example, one of the seats would be occupied by a pilot until regulators allow autonomous flights to carry passengers. But human-piloted e-plane flights would be cheaper in India compared to the West, which would make it feasible for an operator to break even within two years, taking into account the capital expenditure and operating expenses, he says.

Regulations will vary from one country and city to another for testing e-planes and actual deployment as well. For example, Dubai and Singapore are among the most proactive in engaging with E-plane makers. Volocopter has already done test flights in these cities and hopes to launch commercial services soon.

The Indian startup may have to do its trials in remote areas in the country, depending on what regulators say. But once the technology is demonstrated, it will go wherever the environment is suitable for testing and deploying passenger flights. “Ideally, we would want to fly in India but we don’t know how long the certification process will be,” says Chakravarthy.

Chakravarthy has been a mentor to several startups over the years, providing them with guidance as well as access to lab facilities at IIT Madras. But he wanted to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk. “It’s far easier to evangelize deep tech startups than to actually plod through one. I wanted to see how to run a startup,” he says. That’s how he became a co-founder of ePlane with Pranjal Mehta, who graduated from IIT Madras in 2019.

Chakravarthy stopped teaching last year and started cutting back on his research guidance to focus on the startup where he is the CTO and a major shareholder, thus putting skin in the game.

A professor-student duo from a top engineering college launching a futuristic startup would be the done thing in Silicon Valley. But it’s far less common in India where professors appear to be a lot more risk-averse. Chakravarthy is flying into uncharted skies.

The post It’s a Plane, It’s a Drone; It’s Got the Best of Both Worlds appeared first on ELE Times.

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Source: https://www.eletimes.com/its-a-plane-its-a-drone-its-got-the-best-of-both-worlds

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Virgin Galactic unveils new spaceship for its growing fleet

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Virgin Galactic has unveiled the company’s first SpaceShip III in its growing fleet, VSS Imagine.

The spaceship showcases Virgin Galactic’s innovation in design and astronaut experience. Imagine also demonstrates progress toward efficient design and production, as Virgin Galactic works to scale the business for the long-term.

VSS Imagine will commence ground testing, with glide flights planned for this summer from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

The livery design, finished entirely with a mirror-like material, reflects the surrounding environment, constantly changing colour and appearance as it travels from earth to sky to space.

Leveraging a modular design, the SpaceShip III class of vehicles are built to enable improved performance in terms of maintenance access and flight rate. This third generation of spaceship will lay the foundation for the design and manufacture of future vehicles.

As VSS Imagine begins ground testing, manufacturing will progress on VSS Inspire, the second SpaceShip III vehicle within the Virgin Galactic fleet. The introduction of the SpaceShip III class of vehicles is an important milestone in Virgin Galactic’s multi-year effort that targets flying 400 flights per year, per spaceport.

VSS Imagine is unveiled ahead of VSS Unity’s next test flight, which is planned for May 2021.

Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, commented: “Today we unveiled our SpaceShip III class of vehicles, marking the beginning of the Virgin Galactic fleet. VSS Imagine and Inspire are stunning ships that will take our future astronauts on an incredible voyage to space, and their names reflect the aspirational nature of human spaceflight. Congratulations to our dedicated team who worked so brilliantly to achieve this milestone.”

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, added: “Virgin Galactic spaceships are built specifically to deliver a new, transforming perspective to the thousands of people who will soon be able to experience the wonder of space for themselves. As a SpaceShip III class of vehicle, Imagine is not just beautiful to look at, but represents Virgin Galactic’s growing fleet of spaceships. All great achievements, creations and changes start with an idea. Our hope is for all those who travel to space to return with fresh perspectives and new ideas that will bring positive change to our planet.”

www.virgingalactic.com

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Source: https://www.aero-mag.com/virgin-galactic-unveils-new-spaceship-for-its-growing-fleet/

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Hexcel joins ASCEND project

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Hexcel joins ASCEND project

Hexcel has announced its role within the recently launched UK-based project called ASCEND (Aerospace and Automotive Supply Chain Enabled Development) that will focus on developing high-rate manufacturing and processing technologies that will accelerate the development of new, lightweight advanced composite materials.

The composites company will join lead partner GKN Aerospace and 13 other project stakeholders in a collaboration across the UK supply chain to develop the technologies and automation equipment required to manufacture lightweight, more fuel-efficient structures for sustainable air mobility, aerospace, and automotive industries.

Hexcel will contribute to the ASCEND project framework, developing a new HexPly fast cure prepreg system that will significantly reduce component processing times compared to existing aerospace prepregs.

In addition to its new fast curing prepreg technology, Hexcel’s range of Liquid Composite Moulding (LCM) products will be incorporated into the ASCEND project work packages. The project will use both HiTape advanced unidirectional dry carbon reinforcements and HiMax multiaxial non-crimp fabrics reinforcements.

The ASCEND project will allow Hexcel to collaborate with Tier 1 companies, engineers, tooling specialists, and production equipment OEMs to deliver both prepreg and liquid composite moulding solutions that meet both the performance targets and satisfy the processing requirements for high-rate automated manufacture.

The technical integration enabled by the ASCEND project partnerships will ensure a complete understanding of customer performance and processing needs, coupled with the opportunity to industrialize new technologies utilizing the extensive capabilities of GKN’s Global Technology Centre in Bristol.

Paul Mackenzie, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Hexcel, said “We are  proud to be part of the ASCEND program, and we look forward to working with other leading companies as we develop processes and materials that help to make the next generation of sustainable air mobility, aerospace, and automotive vehicles possible. This project offers the perfect platform for Hexcel to collaborate and further develop our HexPly, HiMax, and HiTape technologies.”

The ASCEND partners working alongside Hexcel include Assyst Bulmer, Airborne, Cobham Mission Systems Wimborne, Cygnet Texkimp, DES Composites, FAR-UK, Hive Composites, LMAT, Loop Technology, McLaren Automotive, The National Composites Centre, Solvay Composite Technologies, Rafinex, and Sigmatex (UK).

Together, the group looks forward to delivering the material and automation innovations that will power more sustainable mobility solutions of the future.

www.hexcel.com

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Boeing Commercial Airplanes extends landing gear kits contract with Magellan

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Boeing Commercial Airplanes division has extended its component supply contract with Canada-based supplier Magellan Aerospace.

Under this long-term contract, Magellan will continue to supply landing gear kits and structural components for Boeing platforms such as the 737, 767, and 777.

The contract extension also shows that Magellan meets Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ cost, quality and performance requirements.

Magellan business development, marketing and contract vice-president Haydn Martin said: “Securing this major business extension for key Boeing platforms is foundational for our New York and Kitchener facilities as the aerospace industry works to recover from the impact of the global pandemic.

“The confidence that Boeing has placed in Magellan is significant and demonstrates our ability to offer our customers comprehensive and reliable solutions.”

For Boeing, the company is using a vertical integration strategy that leverages global resources in Ontario, New York City, and India.

It has also made significant investments across all its facilities regarding manufacturing technology and the workforce to enhance its competitiveness worldwide.

Magellan will deliver these kits and hardware from its facilities in Kitchener, Ontario and New York City, New York. The company will also produce an extra supply of kits to reduce production risk.

Deliveries will be made directly to Boeing’s assembly facilities in Renton and Everett, Washington, US.

Last month, Magellan signed a five-year renewal agreement with Avio Aero to supply magnesium and aluminium castings.

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Source: https://www.aerospace-technology.com/news/boeing-commercial-aircraft-magellan/

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ZeroAvia raises new funding for hydrogen-electric engine development

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Zero-emission aviation firm ZeroAvia has raised $24.3m in new funding to support the development of a 2MW hydrogen-electric engine.

Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Horizons Ventures, an existing investor, led the latest funding round and was joined by new investor British Airways.

Other investors, including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, Summa Equity, Shell Ventures, and SYSTEMIQ, also joined the financing.

The financing takes the company’s total private investment to more than $53m while the total funding raised is close to $74m since its formation.

ZeroAvia’s funding comes a few months after the UK Government, through the Department for Business Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), and Innovate UK, announced a $16.3m (£12.3m) grant to deliver a 19-seat hydrogen-electric powered aircraft in the market by 2023.

The new funding will accelerate the hydrogen-electric powertrain development for a ten to 20-seater regional aircraft.

ZeroAvia aims to commercialise the engine as early as 2024. The company aims to enter the more than 50-seater commercial aircraft segment by 2026.

The funding will also de-risk the company ambition to power a 100-seat single-aisle aircraft by 2030.

ZeroAvia CEO and founder Val Miftakhov said: “This new funding, in conjunction with our other recent milestones, will significantly accelerate our path to zero-emission solutions for larger regional aircraft at a commercial scale.

“With many airlines lining up and ready to make the shift to zero-emissions, we expect to see wide-scale adoption of this technology.”

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Source: https://www.aerospace-technology.com/news/zeroavia-electric-raising-funds/

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