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Beta Goes the Distance
  • 27 Oct 2023 09:20 AM
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Beta Goes the Distance

Beta Technologies moves towards production of its all-electric Alia aircraft
and continues to expand its charging network.
By Robert W. Moorman
Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2023

Featured image: The first Alia prototype (N250UT) quietly flew over Washington, DC, on Oct. 18 on its way to Florida. (All photos via Beta Technologies)

Beta Technologies’ recent opening of its new 188,500-ft² (17,500-m²) manufacturing plant for its Alia aircraft is the latest indicator that the 2017-founded South Burlington, Vermont-based company is one of the world’s leading electric aircraft companies. Beta has two prototype Alia aircraft that it is currently testing for two future models: the CX300 electric conventional takeoff and landing (eCTOL) and A250 electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. The two aircraft share 80% common design elements, creating a simple, streamlined path to commercialization and certification, Beta says. The company plans to produce up to 300 aircraft per year and eventually hire hundreds of factory workers, beyond its 600 employees today.

“Beta is excited to enter the next phase of our growing electric aerospace business,” Kyle Clark, CEO and founder of Beta Technologies, told the crowd assembled to celebrate the opening of the sustainable facility on Oct. 2. The greenfield facility is equipped with 260 geothermal wells for temperature control within the building and includes nearly three acres (1.2 hA) of roof-mounted solar panels.

The new plant is located at the Patrick Leahy Burlington International Airport (BTV), renamed by the city for the former US senator in April. In addition to Clark, speakers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony included the state’s two current senators — Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch — as well as Leahy, Vermont Governor Phil Scott, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and South Burlington City Council Chair Helen Riehle (a transcript of the ceremony has been created for this article).

Vermont leads the nation with a clean electrical grid, with 98% of electricity generated from renewables, including a significant amount provided by hydroelectric power from Québec. Burlington became the first city in America to reach 100% renewable energy in 2014, so charging Alia at the airport is completely emissions free.

Alia
As of the opening ceremony, Beta has conducted more than 10,000 hours of testing on its electric motors and flown more than 500 full-scale, piloted flights on battery systems; unlike many other eVTOL developers, Beta has not remotely piloted any of its full-scale test aircraft.

Alia has flown more than 26,000 miles (42,000 km) in flight testing over the past three years, flying on a near-daily basis. The company has made a number of cross-country flights (see below) and on Sept. 27, Alia made its first international flight to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL) in Montréal, Québec (see “Beta Visits Montréal,” pg. 29). Evaluation flights have been made by pilots from the US Air Force, US Army, the FAA, Bristow and United Therapeutics.

Beta’s aircraft program partners include: Garmin, which will provide the Garmin G3000 integrated flight deck for Alia; Albany Engineered Composites (AEC) will provide composite components, which include wing skins, spars, ribs, fuselage and empennage components; industrialization partner Advanced Integration Technology (AIT) is responsible for factory integration, automation and tooling; sensor-based pilot inceptor and throttles come from Sensata Technologies; electromechanical rotary actuator producer Volz Servos will provide flight control surface actuation; and Solvay will provide composite materials, which represent up to 70% of Alia’s structures. Other suppliers, such as for Beta’s battery cells, have not yet been revealed, but the other core enabling technologies, like the electric propulsion system, are being developed by Beta in-house.

Alia superseded its first air taxi prototype, the quad-tilt- propeller Ava XC (see “Electric VTOL for Organs on Demand,” Vertiflite, March/April 2019). Beta determined that Ava, which was really built as a rapid prototype proof-of-concept aircraft, would not be a viable solution.

Alia, whose shape was inspired by the sleek Arctic Tern, features 50-ft (15.24-m) span, arched wings with tapered wingtips and a V-Tail. The aircraft is capable of carrying 1,400 lb (635 kg) of payload or can be configured for up to five passengers, plus pilot. The aircraft was originally unveiled with four vertically thrusting propellers for vertical flight, but essentially all of its mileage to date has been accrued without them, as an eCTOL aircraft.

However, for the past several months, Beta has been testing and flying its eCTOL and eVTOL aircraft concurrently. While the strategic plan is to certify the fixed-wing aircraft first, the company is “still actively and quickly progressing the VTOL aircraft,” said a company spokesperson. “We conduct flight tests in both configurations on a weekly, if not daily basis.”

Some eVTOL aircraft developers are fixated on the air taxi market. Beta is taking a “crawl, walk, run” methodology to its aircraft programs that will begin with the transport of cargo, medical supplies and human organs, and then passenger service, said Clark. In other developments, Beta is talking to authorities in southern states to provide rural health care and support disaster relief.

In back-to-back interviews before the dedication ceremony, Clark and other top officers discussed Beta’s programs.

“Beta is taking the less sexy, but more productive and practical approach,” said Clark, who started pitching his electric aircraft ideas to civil and military operators in 2017. “Early on, we looked around and sought guidance from one of our board members and major investor, Dr. Martine Rothblatt (PhD, JD), who said to identify a corridor of relative indifference and run like hell down it.” Beta did. Rothblatt is founder and CEO of United Therapeutics, launch customer for the A250, and co- founder of Sirius Satellite Radio (see “Martine Rothblatt: Serial Entrepreneur,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2022).

Clark said Beta is focusing on the enabling technologies, such as batteries, motors, controllers and inverters, which converts the direct current (DC) from the batteries to alternating current (AC) for the electric motors and other systems. Developing these high-voltage systems for aerospace-grade reliability, rapid response and light weight are significant challenges.

“Those are the things that will enable us to grow in a simple, pragmatic way,” said Clark. “Today, we are well down the certification path. The next step is the hard work of industrialization, entering manufacturing and production.”

Industry observers recognize Beta’s practical approach. “It’s one of the more sensible eVTOL programs out there,” noted Bjorn Fehrm, analyst for Leeham Company, an aerospace consultancy. “Taking it in logical steps with conventional eCTOL aircraft first, then to eVTOL, makes sense.”

Having signed serious customers in the US Air Force, United Therapeutics, Blade, UPS, LCI, Air New Zealand and Bristow, and raising over $800M in financing, gives Beta significant momentum to be among the leaders of American electric aviation when the aircraft is certified and deliveries commence. The company reports orders and options for nearly 500 aircraft.

Beta’s decision to certify the eCTOL version first led to speculation that the eVTOL program would be further delayed. Not true, said the company. But the move begs the question: why target the fixed-wing variant at the logistics market?

“The cargo logistics market is here today,” said Beta Chief Operating Officer Blain Newton. “Nobody needs to be convinced that the logistics networks infrastructure are completely taxed. Moving away from the pure hub-and-spoke model into a mesh network makes sense.”

The FAA’s decision in May 2022 to use divergent certification pathways for eVTOL and eCTOL aircraft (see “FAA Changes Course on eVTOL Certification,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2022) bifurcated Beta’s Alia certification program into the two different designs.

Beta actually has three ongoing Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification programs: The CX300 eCTOL and A250 eVTOL aircraft, plus certification of the H500A electric motor under Part 33 rules. FAA certification of Beta’s eCTOL version is planned for early 2025 under 14 CFR Part 23 with no special conditions other than the electrical power system (the motor is expected to be certificated first). The eVTOL version is expected to be certified in 2026 under 14 CFR Part 21.17(b) as a “Powered-Lift” aircraft. [Note that Beta and other industry leaders recently collaborated with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) for the recently published white paper, "Managing Range and Endurance of Battery-Electric Aircraft” (see sidebar, "Range Anxiety of Electric Aircraft"). 

The A250 (originally called the Alia-250) has a projected range of 250 nm (287 miles or 460 km) and maximum takeoff weight of 6,450 lb (2,925 kg). It’s designed to carry a pilot and five passengers or a pilot plus 1,400 lb (635 kg) of payload in cargo configuration. The production CX300 should be able to exceed those figures. The Alia eCTOL demonstrator made one flight of 386 miles (620 km), with no payload, to Plattsburg from Jamestown, New York, as part of a three-leg circuit of the state this past March.

“While it is a separate certification [for the eCTOL and eVTOL versions], much of the work on propulsion, fly-by-wire, battery systems, flight control hardware and software will have been done as part of the eCTOL configuration in Part 23,” said Newton.

Beta is tweaking its CX300 eCTOL production model, said Newton. With guidance from Beta customer UPS, the airframe will be longer and taller than the Alia demonstrator. Specific dimensions were not provided.

In 2021, UPS Flight Forward announced plans to purchase up to 150 of Beta’s eVTOL aircraft. The Air Force, United Therapeutics and Blade have purchase agreements or partnerships with Beta.

While no cargo has been carried, Alia replicated UPS missions between Manchester, New Hampshire, and Burlington, Vermont. The company says it is the only electric aircraft developer with FAA permission to fly its piloted aircraft in Class B airspace surrounding the nation’s busiest airports, supporting both Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and Visual Flight Rules (VFR).

Unlike conventional aircraft, Alia doesn’t have rudder pedals for directional control and aircraft yaw. A side stick force inceptor is used to control pitch, roll and yaw. Utilizing frequency conversion technology, Alia translates stick force inputs directly into the flight control servos to control the position of the aileron, rudder and elevators of the aircraft precisely. Yaw control is accomplished by twisting the force inceptor in the direction the pilot wants the nose to move, similar to a rudder input. Alia’s foot pedals are for differential braking only during ground movement, not for directional control, like the majority of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft.

Alia also incorporates a lift lever to control vertical thrust similar to a collective in a helicopter. Raising the lift lever activates the vertical lift motors with 100% torque achieved at the vertical stop and zero power at the bottom of the stop. The lift lever is equipped with a thumbwheel that controls the power to the dual motor pusher prop. Rotating the thumbwheel full forward provides 100% torque. To optimize power consumption, the pilot engages the pusher prop immediately after a vertical takeoff to transition from vertical to wingborne lift, after which the vertical motors are shut down. The pusher prop provides propulsion during cruise.

Beta’s proprietary electric motors feature a redundant design powered by three-phase inverters. The battery systems incorporate pack- and cell-level cooling, as well as additional thermal and safety redundancies.
 
The competitive landscape for eCTOL and eVTOL aircraft is getting crowded. Will the market for electric aircraft become regionalized? Will Japan’s SkyDrive, Inc. become the dominant eVTOL aircraft maker in Japan? Will Embraer’s Eve Air Mobility eVTOL aircraft dominate sales in Brazil and elsewhere in South America?

“I don’t think it will be regionalized,” said Clark. “In fact, I think there will be a series of regional licensing deals that allow smaller aircraft to be produced or maintained in these various regions. We are seeing a real interest [in our products] internationally.”

All Charged Up 
In addition to its aircraft development programs, Beta Technologies continues to build its charging facilities business, which adds to the revenue stream for the company.

At present, the charging facilities are mainly along the US East Coast, with plans to build two mid-state California charging facilities.

Beta also has a charging station in Springfield, Ohio, near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, as part of Beta’s work with the US Air Force’s AFWERX Agility Prime program. Beta’s Alia and Joby Aircraft’s five-seat S4 were the first companies to advance in Agility Prime’s “Air Race to Certification” that began in February 2020 (see “US Air Force Primes the eVTOL Industry,” Vertiflite, March/April 2021). Springfield-Beckley Airport has become an Agility Prime test site, and Beta installed chargers across New York and Ohio to support cross-country flights (see “Beta Alia-250 Prototype Flies Cross Country to Ohio,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2022).

At the VFS 15th Annual Electric Aircraft Symposium, held online in July 2021 (see “15th Annual Electric Aircraft Symposium Is Another Great Success,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2021), Clark presented plans for its charging network, with plans for coast-to-coast coverage from Vermont to Nevada (as networks in California and the Pacific Northwest) as well as down the East Coast to Florida. The map showed that a number of charging stations were in process in the Mid-Atlantic states, as well as a chain of stations to Bentonville, Arkansas. The following May, Beta flew Alia from Plattsburgh to Bentonville and back, covering 1,400 miles (2,250 km), for the annual UP.Summit.

Alia made another long-distance flight in November last year to the UPS Worldport in Louisville, Kentucky, with US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in attendance. The 876-mile (1,410-km) round trip made seven stops in four different states.

Beta test pilot Chris Caputo announced at the 17th Annual VFS Electric Aircraft Symposium this past July that it would build a charging station at the Air Force’s Duke Field in Florida, an auxiliary field of Eglin Air Force Base, and fly Alia there. Eglin, home to the 413th Flight Test Squadron, broke ground for the Level 3 quick charging station on Sept. 12. The site was planned to be operational by Oct. 13, in time for Alia’s visit.

In addition to its multimodal chargers for aircraft and EVs, Beta’s Charge Cube aircraft-only Level 3 charger provides up to 350 kW of continuous power, charging Alia in just 50 minutes. The 50-ft (15-m) cord and the low, 4-ft (1.2-m) height provides flexibility in aircraft parking orientation and location to minimize aircraft ground handling and maintain a safe distance between the aircraft and its Charge Cube.

As this article was being compiled, Beta was flying to Duke Field in the Florida Panhandle. The trip included a stop in Marshfield, Massachusetts, to conduct the inaugural charge of its recently completed Beta charger, the state’s first multimodal charging station. Stops included Igor I. Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Connecticut; Westchester, New York; Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, after flying over the nation’s capital; Raleigh Executive Jetport in North Carolina; and Augusta, Georgia. The aircraft arrived at Duke Field on Oct. 26.

At present, Beta has 13 completed charging facilities across New England, and running southwest to Arkansas and southward along the East Coast. Another 10 are under construction, 24 in pre-construction and 16 in the design phase, according to Chip Palombini, head of charge product and network. The company hopes for nearly 150 stations to be online by 2025. The Level 2/3 chargers are for Beta’s use but also open to all customers, including other electric aircraft and operators of automotive electric vehicles (EVs) and buses. Customers are charged per kilowatt-hour.

“We are focused on electrifying airports,” said Palombini. “Where these aircraft will operate will determine where we put these charging stations,” he said, adding that the company is posting around a thousand charging transactions per month, primarily from the EVs. “We have motivation to create a ubiquitous charging network.”

In addition to eliminating tailpipe emissions, electric aircraft should have much lower operating costs. Beta said that Alia costs about $17 to charge, compared to $700 to fuel a similar- sized turbine aircraft for the same range during its recent cross-country trip. Fuel-burning engines also produce more noise and vibration, and are more expensive to maintain.

Finding a more capable, affordable successor to the range-limited lithium-ion batteries is a major challenge for the eVTOL and eCTOL aircraft developers. A related issue is energy density and battery weight. Beta is currently working on next-generation battery research at its St. Albans, Vermont, Advanced Battery Research Center at a former Energizer battery plant. Much of the research is proprietary, but developing a longer-range, more robust battery is part of that research.

Sean Donovan, Beta’s head of batteries, said the company is focusing presently on commercially available battery technology and cells, but expects a 40% improvement in this area before the end of the decade. He credits the aviation sector for stimulating the battery industry.

“We’ve been developing high-voltage battery packs specifically for aerospace for the last five years, and flying on our internally developed packs for the last three years,” said Donovan. “In that time, we’ve assembled battery packs with four different types of battery cells as we take advantage of technological improvements to enhance the performance and simplicity of our aircraft.”

Numerous performance and durability testing — internally and externally — has been performed. In 2022, the Beta team successfully conducted a 50-ft (15.2-m) drop test of one of its battery packs with the FAA and the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR). The company’s battery program in St. Albans is geared toward certification, production and continued research and development (R&D).

Similar work is being done elsewhere. The US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory developed a lithium-air battery that could increase the range of electric automobiles and aircraft. Lithium-sulfur, sodium-ion, iron-air, solid-state and zinc-based batteries are being tested as longer-range successors to lithium-ion batteries.

Human Supply Chain
As for training, the X-Plane flight simulator, X-Plane 12, developed by Austin Meyer, founder of software maker Laminar Research, is being used to train pilots on the two aircraft. The simulation program helps validate the physics of Alia.

To bolster staff, Beta created workforce development programs. The company is partnering with the Champlain Valley Technical Education Center (CV-TEC) in Plattsburgh, New York (on the other side of Lake Champlain, where Beta has done much of its flight testing), to instruct students about the technology and operation of electric aircraft. Selected students can participate in a 10-week program, from which they can gain professional certification in the field.

Beta had more than 70 interns in summer 2022 and 2023, and has a high school job shadow program that helps younger students get interested and involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and First Lady Jill Biden visited Beta in April “as part of a four-state tour highlighting American programs to promote workforce development,” where they spoke with Beta interns, the company said.

Beta’s new manufacturing plant is just the latest of the company’s facilities. The Beta headquarters/R&D building and its maintenance and training center are also located at BTV airport in South Burlington, Vermont, while the Advanced Battery Research Center is in St. Albans, Vermont. The company also has a flight test facility in Plattsburgh, New York; and offices in Washington, DC; Springfield, Ohio; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Montréal, Québec.

The opening of the new manufacturing facility serves as a prologue to Beta’s move toward certification, acceptance and delivery of its fixed-wing and eVTOL aircraft. Summed Clark: “We are getting into the phase where the cost of the aircraft matters. We have to prove to investors that we have a good business model. It’s not just a green thing. The economics of the aircraft have to work.”

About the Author
Robert W. Moorman is a freelance writer specializing in various facets of the fixed-wing and rotary-wing air transportation business. With more than 30 years of experience, his writing clients include several of the leading aviation magazines targeting the civil and military markets. He can be reached at rwmassoc325@gmail.com.
 

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