Aviation and aerospace used to be sexy all the time. People dressed up to fly on airplanes. It used to be an event. Being an airline pilot used to be a combination of swashbuckler and nomad, with a lover in every (air)port. Now, not so much. Part of my past was as a road-warrior for one of the biggest global tech firms. I’ve crossed the equator and international date lines more often than most people leave their country. Jet travel these days has become cramped bus routes that happen to not be on the ground.
But there’s still excitement in the space, albeit mostly for the wrong things. This is the fourth of perhaps six sexy/unsexy, practical/impractical quadrant charts I’m crafting across the decarbonization domains I work in or pay a lot of attention to. I started with electricity and energy storage, a core subject given my projections of grid storage through 2060 and role with Agora Energy Technologies, helping the company get its CO2-based redox flow battery to market. I moved on to ground transportation, something I have been assessing and publishing on for about a decade with provincial committee presentations, advisory roles to masters students in the space and the like. Then it was marine transportation, where my heterodox projections of marine tonnage and market shifts as well as decarbonization profiles have been attracting attention for a while now, with excellent conversations with global innovators helping me hone my assessment.
And now onto stuff that goes up, and usually comes back down. As always, sexy and practical starts the day. SpaceX isn’t specifically a decarbonization story, although it is entirely possible to fuel rockets with renewably manufactured fuel, and the privately held Musk firm is sending rockets into the sky on a schedule that’s approaching weekly. And it’s reusing them too. And it’s catching them offshore in automated barges named after ships from Iain M. Banks Culture series of books (strongly recommended). SpaceX upcoming rockets will be stainless steel glistening Art Nouveau beasts.
It’s absurdly practical too, as SpaceX is delivering supplies and astronauts to the ISS, and satellites to orbits, vastly more cheaply than ever before. Some people remain unaware of Starlink, but it’s been delivering satellite-internet around the world for a couple of years, most recently with hundreds of ground stations in Ukraine assisting military and civilian efforts during the failing Russian invasion. My first career was multiple rounds of deploying telecommunications and computer upgrades to 1,400 physical locations across Canada for one of the major banks, and during the … third? fourth? … phase of my career I was working on aspects of Australia’s attempts to wire its Outback. I know what a game-changer cheap, high-reliability, high-speed internet will be for populations around the world.
Next on the list is autonomous flight. The company I’ll lead with is XWing out of California. It is already flying cargo flights in small general aviation scale planes today, and flying autonomous flights in its R&D program constantly. I spoke with Kevin Antcliff, product lead for XWing after his NASA career, a few months ago. XWing is making small, pragmatic steps with on-board pilot observers and ground control stations handling air traffic interactions already, and prepping for first cargo flights and FAA certification. This is a crucial component of regional air mobility maturation, as pilot shortages — limited flight hours, boring routes, low pay, stress and COVID disruptions are factors — are a key blocker of expanding aviation. XWing is keeping well out of military aerospace, something I consider a kiss of death for many aerospace startups as they end up having to meet absurd niche requirements of no commercial ability while simultaneously preventing them from working with multiple countries and firms with good commercial demand and putting their intellectual capital at risk.
Overlapping into sexy and somewhat with autonomous flight is the entire area of unmanned aerial vehicles. In the sexy area, extreme and outdoor sports have become a much greater source of viral and compelling video as semi-autonomous or pilot controlled drones chase highly skilled athletes doing absurdly risky things down mountains, along singletrack, and into the tubes of curling waves. Cheap militarized drones are doing amazing things in Ukraine, including being believed to be key to the successful missile attacks that disabled the Russian flagship.
But fixed wing and rotorcraft small drones are quietly cutting the bottom out from under general commercial aviation. Overflights and inspections once done by piloted helicopters and small planes are increasingly done by commercial drones, something I pointed out in my assessments of the EVTOL urban air taxi nonsense (more on that in this piece, of course). I spoke about this trend with the co-founders of Buzz Solutions earlier this year and DroneSeed founder Grant Canary a year ago. Buzz has a Cloud platform to integrate and automatically identify inspection images of electrical grid infrastructure that are mostly from UAVs these days. The US utilities are ramping up inspection cycles massively due to both aging infrastructure and increased climate risks, and UAVs are the path forward. DroneSeed runs swarms of autonomous 8-foot diameter, 112-pound drones to plant 60 pounds of seedlings per drone run in wildfire devastated rural areas, getting replanting going in 90 days instead of two years. FAA approvals for out-of-line-of-site unpiloted drones, even in rural areas, required up to 46 FAA regulators on calls as they figured it out.
Inspections of bridges, wind turbines, and buildings is now done by drones capturing high-res images and with increasingly machine-learning enabled image recognition. The days of people rappelling down in harnesses from above, tediously climbing back up, doing it again and again, and the attendant risks, are becoming a thing of the past as commercial drones buzz up and down with a little electricity. There are commercial drone inspection companies everywhere now, displacing internal combustion helicopters and fixed wing aircraft with batteries and electrons.
Now off to the overhyped and impractical segment.
Let’s start with urban air mobility (UAM) and the electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft and in-city vertiports photoshop renders and SPAC-inflated bubbles. I spent a fair amount of time looking at this nonsense segment of aerospace a year ago, taking apart the inflated and specious market assumptions, the engineering arm-waving hiding non-viability of their products, the complete lack of a path to certification for their proposed business models, and, of course, the complete waste of capital that could have moved the needle in useful spaces. This Jetsons fantasy continues to get press despite being lacking in any merit.
Due to the prevalence of SPACs in the space, the remaining firms are left with enough millions to cling to existence with their fingertips, but far from enough for the extremely expensive process of certifying and manufacturing complex rotorcraft that change flight profiles from hovering to level flight and back, and are supposed to be safely flying over schools and malls in urban areas. North America has exactly one scheduled helicopter operator, Blade, which now runs both the Manhattan to JFK service and the Vancouver area Helijet service (which I’ve used a few times). São Paulo, where I lived for a year a decade ago, has the most private helicopters of any city in the world, and it only has about 700 of them.
Yeah, next time you see some photoshopped image of a sexy Jetsonsesque rotorcraft touching down in a city center, just know that it’s baseless hype.
Overlapping with this space are the electric ultra-short take-off and landing (eSTOL) crowd. They share the same delusion of landing in urban areas, but on school playgrounds, soccer fields, and parking lots, ignoring the reality of overhead wires and massive thermals and turbulence near the ground round buildings and over pavement. They have a strong tendency to be in bed with military money, as there are clear military use cases for this kind of thing. Once again, much Photoshop, no reality.
Another big PR boom is hypersonic passenger craft. Yeah, the Concorde is back, long live the Concorde (saw one at a Paris airshow as a kid who had the good fortune to be Canadian air force brat so got out of small town Canada for a couple of years). So yes, the dream of very rich people to get from LA to New York or New York to London in 90 minutes is back. And the pre-eminent firm in the space is called Boom Supersonic, leaning into the window-breaking crack of exceeding one of those physical speed limits that were such a pain for so long.
I had a fun conversation a few months ago with a PhD of aerospace engineering whose professional work for years was in the defense industry on hypersonic missiles and defenses against them. She loved the idea of zipping across the continent absurdly quickly, and as she now works for a west coast VC, maybe she might get sufficiently well compensated to do so, if a supersonic commercial passenger air plane were ever to fly again.
But Boom just lost its one link to aerospace credibility as Rolls Royce walked away from building a supersonic engine for the inevitable money loser. (Rolls Royce has multiple other problems, but at least it eventually made the right decision here.)
You’ll note from the filth coming out of the Concorde that it was an exorbitant fuel hog, so definitely not a solution to anything except very wealthy people’s sense that their time is deeply important and that despite Zoom being proven fit for purpose for billion dollar deal making over the pandemic, they want to brag about the boom.
Ekranoplans — ground effect aircraft that skim the surface of the water — have been making a comeback recently too, with Boston-based Regent making a claim that it is going to build a fleet of electrified ones and South American Aquila Global claiming that it is going to be building new internal combustion versions. The only place that they ever make any sense is in fiction, for example in William Gibson’s excellent Blue Ant trilogy, where the deeply weird, powerful and rich Hubertus Bigend buys an old one and has it restyled with a deeply expensive luxury interior for his personal use. Like many other things in the sexy but impractical quadrant, they have a long history of failures, recur as regularly as that rash you picked up in Tijuana that one time, and get inordinate amounts of attention because they are different.
It’s worth noting that there are brilliant aerospace, mechanical, electrical, and materials engineers crawling all over this space. I’ve spoken with engineers like Damon Vander Lind of the now-defunct airborne wind energy firm Makani and then the now defunct air-taxi firm Kittyhawk, and Paul Martin, who designs modular chemical plants via his firm Spitfire as well as being a founding member of the Hydrogen Science Coalitions, about their past efforts where they were given great money to work on really interesting problems that fairly clearly were going nowhere, and we agree it’s easy for engineers to be seduced by interesting technical challenges and lose sight of making an actual difference. Both are committed to delivering actually useful change now, something that the engineers (and other skilled resources) in the sexy but impractical quadrants should seriously consider.
Before I get to hydrogen — a recurrent entry in the overhyped and impractical quadrant — let’s deal with near-space tourism. SpaceX is actually delivering rich and occasionally interesting civilians to actual space, but I dealt with it already. There are two other contenders in the space, however, Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’ Blue Origin. Both make it barely past the almost entirely arbitrary boundary of space, 60 miles up. Both get mostly mocked for being oligarchic men’s fantasy machines, and deservedly so. Neither are remotely practical for anything except rich people’s bragging rights and potential heart attacks. Branson only edges into sexy because the plane is cool. Bezos’ fails miserably because his rocket is literally phallic and blatant isn’t that sexy. Also, Blue Origin is failing miserably to deliver on any of its contracts and plans for anything except the penis-shaped float-in-space-for-five-minutes rich tourist-mobile.
But now, back to hydrogen. As a LinkedIn commenter mentioned, these quadrant charts will change over time. Probably the biggest change is that hydrogen will stop being so overhyped as a store of energy or fuel for anything. That’s going to take a few years. I counsel private, VC, institutional investors, and developers to ride the H2 hype on the supply side, getting renewables, transmission, and storage built for green hydrogen electrolysis as all of that will be useful in 2035 and 2040 for direct use of electricity and decarbonization of industrial black hydrogen, but staying far away from fuel cells, synthetic fuels and the like which are going to crash and burn on the Scylla and Charybdis of hydrogen as a fuel, physics and economics.
And in aviation, the problems of hydrogen are vastly greater. Aviation certification processes have no pathway for in-fuselage, 24° Kelvin explosive gases. Loss of passenger/freight space and excessive fuel costs kill economic viability, and mean gross take-off weight (the useful MGTOW variant) losses are the nail in the coffin. Despite that, various startups and serious aerospace OEMs who are stuck in the Innovator’s Dilemma are working on hydrogen drivetrains for aircraft. Other very serious people are working out how exactly very expensive hydrogen would be delivered to airports, stored at them, liquified, and pumped into aircraft where the superchilled tanks would have to co-exist with passengers who prefer temperatures 293° Celsius warmer. Hence the reason that hydrogen provides no fuel for aviation through 2100 in my projection.
Synthetic fuels take the expense of green (or likely blue) hydrogen and add a lot more expenses to it, as I laid out in my assessment of Carbon Engineering‘s claimed intent of making plug-compatible synthetic fuels from carbon from the air and hydrogen from water (as opposed to the reality that its only natural market was enhanced oil recovery, which it promptly started working on with Oxy). As a replacement for Jet A-1, they are an economic failure.
And so, on to neither sexy nor practical. The perpetually just-about-to-get-off-the-ground dirigibles are making a comeback again. It’s almost like no one knows that winds exist, that they are stronger further from the ground and balloons really struggle to go against winds. It’s almost like no one has looked at the entire history of lighter than air transportation and seen the constant failures of dirigibles outside of specific niches, either tethered or as floating billboards.
I’ve put Spin Launch in this category as well. I kind of like it. It’s deeply nerdy. Evacuate the atmosphere from a disc-shaped chamber, spin up a carbon-fiber arm with a huge dart attached to it and hurl it at hypersonic speeds into space. I looked at it closely when it managed to throw a 10-meter dart roughly 10,000 meters into the sky. The concept will likely be a useful technology on the Moon or Mars at some point in the next two centuries, but on Earth it’s not going to achieve lift-off due to the weird physics of hypersonics and the carbon-fiber arm ripping itself to pieces from the forces required to spin up to velocities sufficient to throw something into orbit, then the abrupt loss of all of that mass as it releases it.
Mostly in this space right now there’s digital air traffic control, a key requirement for a lot of small electric UAVs and larger autonomous aircraft flying around the place. With the number of pilots keeping identified flying objects’ numbers under control, human air traffic controllers can keep up. But if we want longer-distance autonomous flight out of line of site of operators, we need the devices to have unique identifiers (remote IDs), digital communications to automated air traffic control systems which are overseen by human air traffic staff, not directly run by them. Outside of emergencies, all air traffic control will end up being by computers, and most decisions about how aircraft travel through the air will be done by computers.
Right now, commercial UAV manufacturers are squawking because a key element of this, remote IDs, is now required by the FAA and that’s been upheld by courts. It’s been coming for a long time, and was communicated clearly, but some UAV manufacturers were clearly ignoring reality.
But digital air traffic control isn’t in the practical side of my quadrant for the most part. Why not? Because it’s the furthest behind of the three major chunks of electric airplanes, autonomous flight, and dATC. Yeah, it’s the complex control system that’s going to ensure the safety of everybody below large, flying aircraft laden with heavy goods and people, and with sharp spinning death sticks stuck to various parts of them. Who knew that everything about that was going to be incredibly closely scrutinized, that unions representing air traffic controllers would be deeply reticent about it, that the FAA would have a lot to say about it, and that private insurers were struggling with the very concept. It’s going to take awhile, which is why it’s mostly in the impractical category today. Every year it will edge to the left.
And so, finally, to the parts of aerospace and aviation where real stuff is happening, often without a lot of headlines, and because it’s not sexy enough, usually with inadequate levels of funding.
Investors, take note. This is the quadrant you should spending money in.
Given that hydrogen and synthetic fuels were the last thing I talked about in the overhyped and impractical quadrant, I’ll start with what will be doing the actual heavy lifting as plug compatible fuels for existing aircraft, and as a key displacer for larger aircraft through the fourth quarter of this century: SAF biofuels. There are several certified, they’ve been around for yonks, most aerospace OEMS are quietly certifying their rotorcraft and fixed wing aircraft with them, and they are being demonstrated in mixtures and by themselves on routes globally. It’s just Jet A-1 made from plants and plant oils, some with a bit of supplemental hydrogen from other sources. It’s a lot cheaper than synthetic fuels will ever be, and as hydrogen gets more expensive, processes that use less hydrogen will dominate.
My projection of global liquid fuel demand peak for SAF biofuels would require the stalks of half the grains grown today, or a bunch of switch grass on semi-arable land around the world per the OSTI biofuels land use calculator. It’s well within the carrying capacity of the earth, allows double-cropping for food and fuel, and is eminently doable with existing technologies. Boring, I know.
Next is hybrid electric aircraft. I’ve spoken to a few aerospace ventures working on those, but the most lengthy conversation was with Anders Forslund, co-founder and CEO of Heart Aerospace. Its original plans for a 19-seat fully electric commercial passenger aircraft foundered on the shoals of demand and regulatory drivers, so the company has shifted to a 30-seat hybrid electric design instead. The material I’ve seen indicates that the onboard engine will be a generator almost entirely used for reserve range, with most flights fully electric. As fuel calculations and the ability to both reach alternative destinations and maintain a holding pattern for 45 minutes are a critical critical component of flight safety, and 11 additional passengers makes the aircraft more commercially compelling, this appears to be a good compromise, even if less pure than their original plan. Just like cars, airplanes are going to have an extended hybrid period, the difference being that they will likely never have the awkward non-plugin hydrid plug in phase.
In a similarly pragmatic model, there’s magniX, the Washington State-located electric aviation drivetrain manufacturer. (I keep trying to get Riona Armesmith, the CTO, on CleanTech Talks, so if anyone knows her reasonably well, please ask her to get in touch.) The company is doing something that is bog standard in aviation, which is mostly replacing existing power plants in existing general aviation air frames with new ones, but in their case it’s batteries and an electric motor instead of a new gas turbine. Probably the most press magniX received was for its retrofit of a De Havilland Beaver operated by Harbour Air here in Vancouver, a plane which just completed its first point-to-point test flight of 45 miles in 24 minutes from Vancouver’s mainland to Vancouver Island. I’m hoping to be one of the first passengers on that flight on one of my trips to visit my 91-year old Mom who lives on the Island. There are serious range and operational limitations with retrofits, but there are a lot of short flights in the world, and most air frame manufacturers don’t make their own engines, so magniX is well positioned for growth.
And the Harbour Air floatplane is really just a subset of one of the big, practical, but not very sexy wedges of aviation which is electric conventional take-off and landing (eCTOL) aircraft. Yeah, wings, propellers, mostly indistinguishable from other airplanes flying around. Textron recently bought Pipistrel with its tiny retrofit trainer, which I really hope works out well for the Pipistrel gain, but suspect won’t.
ELECTRON’s design is very attractive and has some interesting features including a wider wingspan with higher aspect ratios more like a glider, front canards and dual pusher props, something very useful for training programs and pilots getting required multi-engine airtime and certifications, but it’s just another plane. Most people wouldn’t look twice at it if it flew overhead. Eviation’s Alice, another sleek but otherwise unremarkable fully electric fixed wing aircraft just completed its first test flight successfully.
But electric fixed wing aircraft are not Jetsons renderings, so they were ignored by California’s VC class, to the detriment of all of the investors and aviation decarbonization. Not sexy enough, and far too practical. These aircraft are being built by people who actually care about business plans and market opportunities that are realistic as opposed to surrealist fantasies.
And they have an actual and clear market — regional air mobility (RAM). In addition to talking with Kevin Antcliff about XWing and autonomy, a big part of our conversation was about RAM, the actually useful subset of aviation transformation. A big part of Kevin’s time at NASA was spent on this, and he led the massive collaborative discussion that led to NASA’s RAM report. The fundamental disruptor that the eVTOL people completely missed is that eCTOLs’ lower fuel and operating costs combined with the existing 5,000 US and 2,800 European public airports which are mostly languishing inverts the hub-and-spoke and huge turbojet engine economic advantages. Just as there are Loblaw trucks now driving round Toronto without drivers, there will be electric fixed wing planes taking freight and passengers between the small airports that are all over the place, with electric Ubers providing last miles service. Digital air traffic control is a requirement to complete this vision, but the aircraft from Heart, Eviation, and Electron are fit for purpose for significant growth, especially as pilots need air time before getting to major airlines. MagniX and others will retrofit current short-hop airframes, and power some of the new planes as well.
And so, that’s the sexy/unsexy, practical/impractical quadrant for aviation and aerospace, or at least the first version of it. Coming soon, probably quadrant charts for carbon drawdown and residential/commercial/industrial heat. In one of those two, hydrogen isn’t in the overhyped and impractical quadrant. Can you guess which one it will be?
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