Would You Like to Fly (in a Battery-owered Plane)? Beta Technologies Brings Amazing New Dimensions to Aviation05/26/2021 12:33PM ● By Jay Murry
In 1967, the 5th Dimension released its song Up, Up and Away. Even though it asked listeners a simple question, “Would you like to fly / In my beautiful balloon,” the song was a transcendent hit for the group. Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) ranked the song 43rd in its “Top 100 Songs of the Century.” Songwriter Jimmy Webb must have realized that the simple lyric was a powerful metaphor for the desire to happily drift away from the societal turbulence of the late 1960s and toward a more desirable destination of social harmony and inclusivity.
In 2021 the Burlington-based Beta Technologies is following the lead of the 5th Dimension, scientifically speaking, by using the simpler mechanics of electric aircraft as a metaphor to create powerful new dimensions in aviation and our society.
1st Dimension: Turning It On
One of the energizers of battery-powered aircraft is Kyle Clark, the founder of Beta Technologies. He has combined a lifelong passion for flying with the pursuit of understanding the intricacies of battery storage and utilization. Kyle realized that the innovative future of aviation rested on whether electrical batteries could become viable generators to power aircraft. He says that threshold has already been crossed. “About three to four years ago, it was clear that batteries were going to be on a trajectory alongside power electronics such that you can power an airplane 100 percent electric.”
The next steps for Kyle were to apply the rapid advancements in battery storage and propulsion to create an aircraft that could have commercial applications—without being powered by fossil fuels. From there, it was a short step forward to creating Beta Technologies. “We formed a team that is anchored at Burlington International Airport, about 230 people, and we’ve been growing toward our goal of deploying these aircraft commercially.”
Kyle adds that Beta is now flying “the world’s largest electric aircraft.” They also believe the future is now for widespread use of it.
2nd Dimension: Teaching Old Aviation New Tricks
Simplicity is the hub from which electric-powered aircraft operate, an advantage over fossil-fueled aircraft. Kyle quotes a line from the book Airman’s Odyssey, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Beta Technologies creates electric aircraft that have only what they need to be efficient in flight and cost. Batteries create far lower temperatures than gas-powered or jet-fueled turbine engines, so components last longer and reduce maintenance costs. Batteries also weigh less than engines and can be spread out around the aircraft, so engineers have been able to develop electric aircraft called eVTOLs—that use vertical takeoffs and landings to avoid the need for airports separated by many miles from their target destination. Kyle says there is no way to spread out several turbine engines in similar fashion. “If you tried to put ten engines on conventional aircraft, the systems alone would be so complex that it would be a service nightmare.”
Simplicity has also enabled Beta to outdistance its competitors in the number of flight and safety tests, and onto the most preferred flight path toward the mass production of electric aircraft.
3rd Dimension: Transporting Goods
The continuing metamorphosis of eVTOLs has already affected the future of transporting a variety of goods. Instead of the amount of time needed to fly a conventional plane to an airport and then drive a shipment of vaccines or an organ transplant to a hospital, electric aircraft can save the driving time by descending directly to a medical facility, especially if that facility is in a rural area many miles from the nearest airport.
The same principle can also be applied to short range cargo delivery, something United Postal Service (UPS) has discovered. UPS announced on April 7 that it plans to buy up to 150 eVTOL aircraft from Beta in order to more efficiently transport time-sensitive deliveries directly to and from UPS facilities—bypassing airports altogether.
Eventually, as Kyle says, the focus of the demand for eVTOLs will center on how humans can be transported safely. “As people and the FAA get really comfortable with the concept of electric aviation, we will probably start to see more passenger missions.”
That new dimension will be the most important of all; to finish the transformation of eVTOL aviation from caterpillar to butterfly.
4th Dimension: Flying People
In the very near future, Kyle expects electric aircraft to first be able to scratch the itch that people have for regional travel getaways. “Take the Northeast Kingdom, for example. If there were a 30-minute flight to the Kingdom Trails, all the folks at Burlington would be visiting there instead of enduring the hour-and-a-half drive.”
Kyle describes a little slice of electric air travel nirvana that is close to being a reality. “You’re not going to go in a pandemic-unfriendly environment of an airport or airplane with 70 other people. Instead, you’re going to be with your family in a four-seater or six-seater, going point-to-point. If other folks had this experience, they would realize very quickly that they could do regional business without ever touching an airline.”
Beta Technologies has achieved a milestone that has brought passenger travel via eVTOL aircraft closer to fruition. On April 13, Blade Urban Air Mobility (an air taxi booking service) announced that it has ordered up to 20 of Beta’s six-seat Alia eVTOLs to start replacing its helicopter fleet with electric aircraft, kind of an air-Uber approach to the future of public transport. This leads us to the final dimension of Beta’s effect on the future…
5th Dimension: Societal Change
The members of the 5th Dimension must have known in 1967 that they had a timeless hit song with Up, Up, and Away when it saw the positive effect that the song had on societal change. Likewise, Kyle and Beta Technologies know that their vision of electric aircraft is ready to reshape and reinvigorate aviation.
It all starts with the support from home. Kyle says the people of Vermont have always been at the front of the class regarding new ideas and staying ahead of a curve. “The whole state of Vermont is a state of forward thinkers and firsts. We are not a stuck-in-the-mud-state. Ever.”
Case in point—Beta installed the world’s first megawatt-scale recharging pad in Burlington. Now, after its contract with Blade, Beta will begin to provide and install recharging pads at several locations in the Northeast along Blade’s anticipated routes for its air taxis.
The cherry on top of this sundae is the contract that Beta has signed with the US Air Force. It is one of several companies that are a part of the USAF’s Agility Prime Program. There will be military applications for the electric aircraft that Beta builds, but the Air Force has adopted a broader goal of using Beta as part of a plan to corner a global advantage in the realm of eVTOL aircraft and technology.
These new dimensions are at the heart of Kyle’s flight plan of enacting positive social change through revamping aviation with Beta electric aircraft at Burlington International Airport. “It will rekindle the spirit of general aviation. We will have T-hangers up and down the side of the airport that will allow individuals to own, to fly, and to enjoy the air in a sustainable electric way, in groups, in ridesharing, and all the different kinds of new social norms of the future.”
The eVTOL aircraft produced by Beta aren’t the hot-air balloons from The 5th Dimension’s Up, Up, and Away, but they are beautiful electric aircraft ready to help us enjoy a beautiful future.