I live in Burlington, Vermont — the same town where eVTOL developer Beta Technologies has made its home. Because of my job as an aviation journalist and my experience as a pilot, more often than not I pick up on activity at the airport. It feels like at any point in the day I can hear a slew of aircraft flying over my head as I work away at my desk, including anything from floatplanes to F-35 fighter jets.
What I do not usually hear, however, is Beta’s fully electric Alia prototype, which has been doing test flights in airplane mode as often as three to four times a week. The hum of its electric motors is almost inaudible against the white noise of a city at work. Although that noise profile will likely change when Alia’s vertical props are installed during VTOL testing, it’s still remarkable to me that a pilot and avid sky-gazer can easily miss an otherwise unmistakable aircraft.
That phenomenon is something that urban air mobility (UAM) veterans Mark Moore and Ian Villa are looking to normalize with the unveiling of their new venture, Whisper Aero. Moore, the company’s CEO, is a former NASA engineer who became a prominent evangelist for UAM while involved with Uber’s Elevate program, where Villa, now Whisper’s chief operating officer, was one of his first hires. After Uber decided to offload Elevate, eventually transferring the program to Joby Aviation last year, Moore and Villa opted to focus full-time on addressing the noise associated with eVTOL aircraft, which they both feel will be a significant barrier to getting the public on board with electric propulsion technology.
Moore said he actually conceived Whisper’s core technologies before going to work with Elevate, and the company was founded — with Uber’s permission as a part of his employment contract — while he was still there. He and Villa said their work at Elevate convinced them that low noise will be key to making electric flight more approachable and acceptable. “We were very intimately aware of what people had been working on, how the space was evolving . . . [and] what are the market factors that truly unlock this as a transportation service, and not just for a select few, but for everyone,” Villa said. “We were able to combine these learnings and Whisper is what came out of that.”
Moore says that Whisper’s proprietary propulsor technology will allow aircraft from consumer drones to passenger-carrying air taxis to blend into the background noise of urban environments. The company has already partnered with the U.S. Air Force’s AFWERX and the Department of Defense (DoD) to test its electric propulsors on small-scale drones. Specifically, Whisper has a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract in partnership with the Illinois Institute of Technology for an “eQ Propulsor,” which it says will enable electric motors to achieve high specific power at low disc loading and with low tip speeds for very low acoustic signatures. The company also has a similarly priced SBIR contract with Brigham Young University for the development of an eVTOL acoustic design framework, intended to help engineers bring aero-acoustics into the conceptual design process.
Whisper Aero’s efforts have been further supported by capital investments of $7.5 million from Lux Capital, Abstract Ventures, Menlo Ventures, and others. Thanks to this strong initial backing and a go-to-market plan that starts with applying the technology to small drones versus going straight to certified aircraft, Moore said that the company expects to create revenues as early as 2023.
“You don’t have to certify drone propulsors, and so we can get those into DoD technology very quickly,” Moore said. By contrast, certifying full-size passenger-carrying aircraft can take years and hundred of millions, if not billions, of dollars.
As of now, Moore says the company has around a dozen employees, and its website currently shows postings for seven different engineering and technician positions. According to Moore and Villa, their team has already begun building and testing hardware, and the co-founders said the data from these initial prototypes are matching their theories and analysis well.
While Moore and Villa made it clear that they intend to utilize small drones to iterate and properly fine-tune their technology, they eventually are looking to scale it. “The technology does scale,” Villa emphasized. While remaining vague on the specifics of the propulsor design, he said, “each generation of the technology adds new layers and enables more thrust.” When that may include something as large as eVTOL vehicles or other aircraft is unclear, although Moore and Villa are confident that they have a plan to get to that point.
“Our ambition is to become the equivalent of the next Pratt & Whitney, but completely focused on electric propulsion,” Moore said. The company’s strategy includes going beyond the aviation sector too, as Whisper believes that its technology — which emphasizes “moving air more cleanly, efficiently, and quietly” — has applications outside transportation, including in a future industrial consumer division, according to Moore.
Industrial applications could even act as stepping stones to scaling the technology for larger aircraft, ensuring that “by the time this is going into aviation, it has real-world proven reliability,” Moore said. “That aviation side is very expensive and very slow. We don’t want to create a company that’s going to be that capital intensive and require such a leap of faith in terms of capitalization before revenues are generated.”
Moore said that Whisper’s technology requires proprietary fabrication processes, and that the company plans to build its higher-end propulsors in house. In the future, it may consider licensing the tech for larger-scale industrial applications as the need for the technology grows.
By making noise (or rather, the lack thereof) the central pillar of its business, Whisper believes it can enable the success of multiple players in emerging markets for electric propulsion. “We believe the future’s electric, we know that sustainability matters, the world is getting closer and closer to each other so that noise matters more and more. And that all adds up to whoever can develop the greenest, quietest technology has a differentiating advantage that’s going to let them win,” Moore said.
For Whisper, that “differentiating advantage” may just be the willingness to solve this problem with a new approach — one that, if successful, no one will ever hear.