Vermont-based eVTOL manufacturer Beta Technologies — currently developing a transport for both the air taxi market and the delivery of artificial human organs — plans to enter the new Airbus-sponsored Air Race E series with an aircraft it’s custom-building for the purpose.
Though its work to date has focused on the challenges of electric vertical lift, including the development of its prototype Ava and its yet-to-be-shown production follow-up, Alia, the company formed an entirely self-funded internal team to spend roughly a quarter of its time designing and manufacturing the new fixed-wing racer. Composite manufacturer Blue Force Technologies, which is creating the carbon-composite components for the eVTOL program, will similarly manufacture the structural pieces for the race aircraft. Recent Beta hire Lochie Ferrier, an MIT-trained aerospace engineer, will lead the program, dubbed Team Blue-Beta Racing. The race series itself kicks off in October 2020.
Company founder Kyle Clark said the two programs — fixed-wing racer and eVTOL — will mutually benefit each other. Developing the electric propulsion system for the eVTOL aircraft has enabled the team to quickly lock down the race aircraft’s own propulsion system, while designing the fixed-wing aircraft will broaden their understanding of both aerodynamics and power management in mission-oriented aircraft. “Most importantly, it drives some critical thinking that you don’t necessarily consider elsewhere,” said Clark, who further emphasized that the race series will help the industry overall transition to electric propulsion. “The restrictions of the race series and the unique shortness of the events, for instance, will allow us to create the most efficient power conversion between the battery and the propeller.”
Clark explained that the series developers have placed limitations on the DC power that the battery in each aircraft can generate, but not on the AC input that can be sent to the motor and, by extension, the propeller. That means that participants will be able to drive innovation in terms of optimizing the motor and power management electronics — that is, using battery power most efficiently. The race format will also force the team to maximize battery cooling technologies and further push the charging hardware they’re developing concurrently with the eVTOL program.
Aerodynamic challenges for the racer included maximizing the freedom afforded by electrification — the aircraft will have a narrow nose absent the bulk of an engine, but still with its propeller up front. “We really have to nail the aero on this,” Ferrier said. “For this kind of configuration, there will be two very different aerodynamics regimes present — straight flight with a low lift coefficient and turning flight, which will require higher lift demands. The challenge is balancing these two.”
The team hasn’t revealed its design yet, but Clark said that while it will have a conventional tail, a single wing, and a single motor and propeller in front of the fuselage, there will be some unconventional elements. They’re currently working on honing the wing’s interface to the fuselage and the windscreen’s impact on aerodynamics, trying in all cases to keep the airflow separate and efficient.
Meanwhile, the primary focus at Beta remains the eVTOL program, and Clark said that work is progressing there on schedule, with the reveal of the production version of the air taxi candidate still on target for later this year. The company has grown to more than 40 personnel, and has secured new investors and customers — the identities of which, Clark said, he can’t disclose yet.