This is the first of a two-part interview with Kevin Noertker, CEO and co-founder of Ampaire, which covers electric mobility, electric batteries and the future of sustainable aviation.
At the Revolution.Aero event in San Francisco, electric, hydrogen and biofuel companies made headwinds.
One company that stood out during the conference was Ampaire, a new electric aircraft manufacturer thathas been flying prototype hybrid-electric designs since 2019 and plans to certify its first commercial product, the Eco Caravan, in 2024.
Its secret sauce is its use of a Cessna 337 Skymaster technology testbed aircraft enabling it to test and refine elements of a hybrid-electric propulsion system that can then be transferred to commercial products such as the Eco Caravan.
This means that the manufacturer can speed-track its certification process compared to those starting off with a clean-sheet aircraft.
We chatted with Kevin Noertker, CEO and co-founder of Ampaire, the man behind this novel invention.
Tell us a bit about Ampaire.
We founded the company six and a half years ago with a vision for what could be done with electric vehicle technology to drive sustainable aviation. New propulsion technology is the driver for each revolution in aviation, whether that's the dawn of powered flight or the dawn of the jet age about 70 years ago.
Now, we have new propulsion technology, electric vehicle technology, which is enabling a really transformative shift in the way we can fly, the way vehicles can be designed, and the way they impact the world around us.
At Ampaire, we're looking to pioneer this exciting technology area and deploy it in the most meaningful areas.
"We have new propulsion technology, electric vehicle technology, which is enabling a really transformative shift in the way we can fly, the way vehicles can be designed, and the way they impact the world around us."
Our mission is to be the world's most trusted developer of practical, compelling, electrified aircraft all the way from humble beginnings with short-haul cargoto a distant future of supersonic travel, but taking a pragmatic step-by-step approach along the way.
I remember you were telling me in San Francisco that you believe you can be certified by 2024 because in the end, it's a conventional aircraft. It's just that the engine is different, right?
That's right. Our approach, as I mentioned, is very practical. It’s about focusing on the necessary and hard problems first and moving very rapidly with getting those into deployed applications.
We are starting with propulsion systems for existing aircraft types. That's the first step for us. We're getting what regulators would call an STC, a supplemental type certificate, which is basically an engine upgrade for airplanes.
"From a regulatory standpoint, it's much more efficient to certify an engine upgrade than it is to certify an entire new airplane."
Our first product is the Cessna Grand Caravan, the Cessna 208B, a nine-seat airplane. We remove the baseline combustion engine and put in our hybrid electric system. From a regulatory standpoint, it's much more efficient to certify an engine upgrade than it is to certify an entirely new airplane.
That's how we're able to move with confidence so quickly through the certification path compared to, for example, those who are doing clean-sheet designs.
You've been testing mainly on the Cessna aircraft, correct?
That's right. Much of our testing to date has been done on the Cessna 337 Skymaster, an awesome technology testbed. It has in-line twin engines. We have replaced one of those combustion engines with an electric drive system, which gives us the type of redundancy that you would want in an experimental flying testbed.
Over the last three and a half years, we've been able to upgrade our systems rapidly. We were the first in the world to fly silicon carbide inverters, at least to our knowledge. We were able to take new technology and deploy it rapidly into our testbed--build, test and fly those systems, and then iterate on our design very rapidly.
We've also been able to deploy our two Skymasters with our customers and governments to demonstrate hybrid electric capability and the need to develop infrastructure for these types of aircraft. These demonstrations help us build out the broader electric aviation ecosystem.
There's a lot of doubt about whether batteries can work in aviation and the transitional period that surrounds it or that there's not enough supply for those types of engines. What do you say to those doubts?
I say it's good to approach the world with a skeptical viewpoint, but then to be willing to have your viewpoint changed when you have data to justify it. We flew our hybrid electric Cessna Skymaster over 1,000 miles in a single hop, on a single charge.
Hybrid electric resolves, in full, the battery energy density question and provides the full utility of the aircraft, the range, the payload, the performance, and really nulls out the risks that are otherwise there if you're using fully electric.
"It's good to approach the world with a skeptical viewpoint, but then to be willing to have your viewpoint changed when you have data to justify it."
Now to those same people, I would ask them to continue to question the validity of claims for performance of fully electric planes right now. The battery energy density is not yet there to allow for a really compelling commercial case on aircraft operating in a large market area.
If you're looking to do short hops, 50 miles, you could probably do it fully electric. But to really hit a broad market, batteries are still too heavy. So you're looking for hybrid electric solutions to solve that problem.
Are you working with the likes of Xwing or Reliable Robotics? For example, Xwing is testing on the Grand Caravan. Are you looking for partnerships?
We know both of their teams well. We love what they're doing. My academic background is in robotics and autonomous navigation. These companies are where my heart was for many years and I still absolutely love it.
While we're not working on that technology at Ampaire, the fact that both Xwing and Reliable Robotics are working on autonomous or simplified vehicle operation Caravans is complementary to what we are doing.
And similar to Ampaire technology, their systems are scalable to many different planes. Their plans align with our strategy and our roadmap pretty well.
When you think about the type of person who would choose to upgrade a Caravan with new technology, you could imagine that we get along and see eye-to-eye on the pragmatic approaches to bringing new tech into the industry.
So there's nothing stopping a customer from wanting both products in the Grand Caravan?
Some of our customers ask for both or have asked when both will be available. Obviously, there are timeline uncertainties on both sides for getting certification. We don't want to lock somebody into having to have both before it's a compelling value proposition.
But yes, we share a very similar customer base. Ultimately, I think that we're going to have a lot of hybrid electric, more autonomous or remotely-piloted Caravans and other planes that are using the basis of both technologies, especially in the logistics sector.
Who are your customers? Are more airlines talking to you or individual buyers?
Right now, we're speaking more with airlines simply because it's aggregate demand. We want to have larger launch customers who will take multiple planes rather than a single plane.
"We're speaking more with airlines simply because it's aggregate demand."
However, in the Caravans, for example, I think about a third of them are operated by people who only own one plane, like bush operators or private pilots. Obviously, many are used by the likes of FedEx and their feeder fleets and others. We're talking with both, but primarily focused on fleet operators initially.
Should we expect any news in the next year to come out? Any MOUs?
Definitely. All the time. Last week, we announced our partnership with KLM for MRO support. It’s a huge opportunity for both organizations to grow as we move into this next phase of actually deploying products across the world.
We’ll have important announcement on technologies, partnerships and our first flight of the Eco Caravan. Some real exciting announcements over the coming months.
Where do you see Ampaire in five years?
In five years, we'll have certification on not just the Caravan, but likely a few additional aircraft. We'll deliver hundreds of units to customers.
We will likely be the first to have a large fleet in commercial operation and all the opportunities and challenges that come along with that: the MRO side of things, the infrastructure side of things, all the government and other types of interest and support.
"The reality is that designing a clean sheet plane around propulsion that doesn't exist is not more efficient. It's a fool's errand to begin without a propulsion system defined."
I anticipate that we'll also be starting to transition our propulsion technologies in more interesting ways into new types of airplanes. At the Revolution.aero gathering, you saw a lot of discussion around how clean sheet planes can be much more efficient than retrofit planes.
That's true, but the reality is that designing a clean sheet plane around propulsion that doesn't exist is not more efficient. It's a fool's errand to begin without a propulsion system defined.
Five years from now, we will have fully certified our “Operating System” for electrified aviation, enabling multiple fully certified propulsion systems: hybrid-electric, maybe even some fully-electric capability at that time.
That's where it gets really exciting for rolling those propulsion systems into other aircraft designs, both our own, and with anticipated OEM partners, as well.
Are customers able to change their system, because you're saying you're making adaptations overtime, are they able to change it within five years, let's say, as you said, of propulsion systems coming up? Is that a possibility?
Yes, we're building for upgradability. For example, battery packs will degrade over time; they’re somewhat of a consumable in electrified aviation. We will be upgrading those packs with the next generation of technology: better cell energy density, better lifecycle, that type of improvement.
We'll see that our customers will have upgraded planes on a recurring basis.
Also, there is the opportunity to take the same aircraft and upgrade it with another propulsion system. Though generally, what we anticipate is those who are buying the hybrid-electric systems, oftentimes, have routes where hybrid-electric is just simply going to be the right solution for a very long time.
So we anticipate delivering additional planes that are of different propulsion types, for example, fully electric for shorter routes.
What time frame do you expect the customers wanting those planes to be upgraded at?
It will likely involve battery upgrades every two or three years. That interval makes sense from a technology development and obsolescence and degradation standpoint.
All the factors align with that two to three-year time frame for upgrading battery packs in the hybrids.
Then it will come down to a strategic decision on when we see the market for fully electric being sufficiently large enough to justify an electric STC for any of these planes.
If you're talking about clean sheets, I think that clean sheet aircraft by the end of this decade would be a success for the industry.
How do you plan to recycle those batteries?
This is an important question for EVs, especially automotive and ground vehicles because there's just such a massive volume of batteries and a lot of raw materials that really should be recycled. There are two different ways to build a reuse of these.
One option is to recycle materials. That's still an emerging industry. There are a number of really great companies working on taking lithium-ion batteries and recycling them.
The other is to look at a reuse of the batteries in ground storage or in some static storage, for example, battery backups at airports.
It's still yet to be proven, really, at the end of life what the performance qualities of these batteries are going to be, and so it's an active area of research.
For example, we look to work with the Department of Energy into questions such as what is the second life of batteries and what is the degradation? How safe are they really for ground storage and airports? Because that would be a positive use case for them.