Electrifying aviation is a critical step in decarbonizing our world. In the first half of our discussion, Heart Aerospace CEO Anders Forslund led us through the steps to get to a working electric motor with integrated batteries and an optimized propeller, a key step along the path of building a 19-seat, 400-kilometer, regional passenger plane. The pragmatic choices that he and his team have made and continue to make are all about getting regulatory approval to fly rapidly, so that electric passenger planes can be carrying people in the second half of this decade.
The conversation continued with a discussion of alternative fuels. Breakthrough Ventures is funding both Heart Aerospace and ZeroAvia, a hydrogen drivetrain startup which is pursuing a different path to getting into the air with low emissions.
There’s a lot of competing technologies, and that’s how it should be, in Forslund’s opinion. It’s a sign of strength. He quotes Gandalf from Lord of the Rings — “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends” — and concurs with the sentiment. While he and I agree that battery electric is completely fit for purpose for short- and medium-haul flights, covering all in-continent flights with the exception of the massive breadth of Russia, that doesn’t mean we are necessarily correct.
And it doesn’t solve the problem of long-haul flight, a truly hard problem with three times the warming as just the CO2 emitted during flight from the additional challenges of contrails and nitrous oxides.
Forslund sees two major threads in the aerospace community. A) Do what spacecraft are doing and using cryogenic hydrogen. B) Do what electric cars are doing.
We took a minute to mull on Elon Musk’s proposed suborbital passenger solution for long-haul as well, something I calculated once would have about 60% of the CO2 per passenger as regular flights. Solving long-haul aviation completely is going to take 40 years, but the start has to be short-haul, where Heart Aerospace is working today. Incrementalism will get us there with one or more technologies.
Forslund cites the altitude record for airplanes being held by a solar electric airplane, as battery electric planes don’t depend on oxygen to combine with fuel, as one of his reasons for considering battery electric to be the better choice. We don’t get into battery energy density, but I’ve dealt with the subject enough times to know that virtually all naysayers about batteries for transportation have been proven wrong rapidly. The first article elicited a comment from a pseudonymous guest pointing to a Europe analyst who supports hydrogen, in which the analyst makes glaring errors to ‘prove’ that battery electric won’t work, something I’ll likely write on soon.
But Forslund points out that aircraft are near the limit of our organizational abilities, and rockets are at the limits. His father had books with people living in orbit by now, but that’s not what has occurred. Aerospace is something which countries struggle with.
He refers back to the Kelly Johnson-era, the space race, and the SR71 as being a period of radical experimentation and chief engineers who had significant authority. By contrast, today we’ve settled on a structure and established a supply chain for aerospace. From his perspective, we’re not creating new chief engineers like Johnson, and if you want a new technology that’s ready in 2040, you need to have someone like that in their 30s to see it through to the end.
The conversation turns to the creation of net new technologies, and de-risking them. Forslund has spent a lot of time in the virtual, working in simulation environments and vendor-supplied tools, starting from mathematics and stepping up into various simulations. He spent much of his product lifecycle management PhD in the realm of digital twins. At each step of the way, errors are introduced.
He cites Oberkampf’s 2011 paper on quantification of uncertainty in scientific modeling as something key to what he’s trying to deal with, and also cites Tufte’s analysis of the Shuttle disaster of 2003, where Powerpoint played a key role in the failures. They inform the reasons why Heart Aerospace is spending a lot of time building real, physical things.
The problem is communication more than engineering in many cases. Actual reality is more immersive than virtual reality, and the physical is more communicative to more people than virtual.
And so, on to the $35 million Series A funding that Heart Aerospace recently closed. Seed funding got it to the working electric drivetrain, but more physical milestones are coming. $35 million is inadequate, of course, to get commercial planes into the air. Forslund’s benchmarking and bottom-up estimation arrive at a figure around $500 million to get to early stage production and the first planes into the air, but Heart Aerospace is going to have to hit its marks for the next couple of years to unlock that level of funding.
To that end, there are two key physical prototypes the current funding is targeting. The first is a 1:5 length scale radio-controlled aircraft, something he admits is going to be a problem for focus. Any time anyone brings a drone or RC plane to the office, everyone turns into kids. This triggers a discussion of the question of appropriate scale for airframe prototypes, as assessments I’d done of Google Makani’s 29 kW airborne wind generation prototype made it clear that it was too small to de-risk the physics for their 600 kW next step. By the standard of quarter-scale by volume, something the RC ES19 is far off, this could have been a problem.
But Forslund and his team don’t have to prove anything about the airworthiness of an above-wing flying bus that’s basically a small Dash 7 with electric motors. This is a completely standard airframe, and everyone knows it flies just fine, assuming you have the wings in the right place and the like. This is a de-risked space. The things that require de-risking seem stupid, like how to fold a wing flap over the nacelle, something requiring 3-dimensional thinking and visualization.
The company’s focus is building a safety critical system, designed to have one loss of life for a billion hours of operation, and many risks remain. Heart Aerospace has a small and rapidly growing team with many open positions to drive down those risks. It’s turning into a systems integrator, trying to build an airplane that is as standardized as possible, with components and technologies that are proven on similar aircraft with legacy drivetrains.
They have started working on an iron/copper bird, a full-scale physical airframe that stays on the ground, but allows integration and testing of all of the mechanical and electronic systems. A key advantage of the electric motors is that they can actually mount the nacelles and motors on the plane, and run them in place without propellers and manufacture load. For legacy fuel aircraft, the engines have to be in a separate room due to the noise and air quality problems, but electric motors don’t have either problem. Heart’s team will be able to stand next to the bird with the motors running at 2 MW without concern.
Once again, the problems they are solving are comparatively pedestrian. Are the wire bundles long enough? Does anything get crimped as things open and close? But at the end of the process, they will be able to be crystal clear in their communications to the vendor who will provide all of the components such as lights, avionics, and deicing. That last used to be done by bleed air systems, but thankfully its been moving to electric deicing systems in recent years, so they can integrate something that works for that problem as well. They’ve been throwing requests for information (RFI) out to global manufacturers, and it’s a treat to open them and find out what cool things already exist.
The company is already fairly far along, and hopes to be able to show the iron/copper bird working next year and get to architecture-complete. At that point, they’ll be able to put in requests for proposals with sharp specifications to manufacturers, and have manufacturer representatives walk through and around the bird to clarify any ambiguities. Likely the first working system, their “Hello world” will be external blinking lights.
They are creating a physical twin, not just a digital twin. That doesn’t mean they aren’t doing digital twins and don’t consider them valuable for what they are good for, but they understand the limitations and failure modes of relying too heavily on them, something I’ve been exploring with one of my firms in the domain of buildings.
While the conversation was excellent, our time together inevitably came to an end. As always when closing out a CleanTech Talk, I asked Forslund to consider what he would say to CleanTechnica’s global audience. His response was thoughtful and inspiring.
“The world was built by people not much smarter than you. We had Fridays for Future because people felt powerless about climate change. At one point, you have to look at yourself and realize that “Hey, I have a toolkit and skillset to be able to do something about that.” I’m so very fortunate to be born in the part of the world I have, getting a free education, getting the scholarships, being in a place in my life where I can risk it all. You’re never going to feel like you’re going to build the next thing, but you have to start. It’s a long marathon and you’ll learn along the way.”
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