Vermont startup Beta Technologies wants to fill the skies with full-size, battery-powered airplanes. Planes that deliver cargo and transport people with less impact on our planet. And while electrifying vehicles with wheels on the ground—cars, trucks, and bikes—has been a fairly straightforward problem to solve, hefting today’s heavy batteries into the sky is far more challenging. And for Beta Technologies, it’s meant testing, testing, and more testing.
Much like the Wright brothers in the open fields of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Beta Technologies is constantly tuning prototype crafts––both full-size and miniature versions––to understand which components are working as planned, and which aren’t. But unlike the Wright brothers, who mostly knew a design was working if they didn’t fall out of the sky, the availability of tiny sensors and high-powered cloud computing means a far more granular and data-driven method to pioneering a new approach to flight. Using AWS, Beta Technologies processes and analyzes a torrent of information during each test. Prototype aircraft transmit about 1,000 data points to consoles on the ground, at a rate of about 100 times each second.
Founder and CEO of Beta Technologies, Kyle Clark.
“Because we use computational fluid dynamics and systems modeling, we have a complete plan-model of the aircraft,” said Founder and CEO Kyle Clark. “We can then take all that data and ‘re-fly’ the full-size plane in a simulated environment and make those models better and better and better. That allows us to develop the final aircraft much faster.”
If it seems like Beta Technologies is starting from scratch, it’s because building a plane that runs only on electrical energy means reimagining the plane’s entire system of mechanics. Traditional fossil fuel–based crafts come with a lot of constraints: fuel storage, piping and machinery to distribute the fuel to the engines, heating and cooling systems, exhaust, and so on. With an electric motor, much of that goes away, and a new set of engineering questions takes its place.
Still, as Clark said, using an electric motor “is way easier than fossil fuel propulsion.”
Clark explained that Beta Technologies can affix the plane’s prop to the rear of the fuselage, rather than the front, because their aircraft don’t need air to cool the fuel, and electric propulsion is more efficient than fossil fuel propulsion. This makes the entire craft more aerodynamic, reducing drag and improving efficiency. And because electric motors deliver …….