Beta Technologies is gearing up to fly its next eVTOL, ALIA, and it looks great.
Beta founder Kyle Clark revealed the full design of ALIA last week at the exclusive eVTOL leadership summit TexasUP, but with some restrictions on media coverage. So we can’t show you photos of the aircraft, but we can tell you that it’s a significant evolution of the company’s previous prototype, Ava-XC, with ALIA having four fixed propellers mounted above the fuselage and one dedicated pushing propeller, rather than eight pivoting prop and motor assemblies.
Beta projects that Alia’s streamlined design will carry the 6,000-pound (2,720-kilogram) aircraft up to 250 miles (400 kilometers) on a single charge. That’s the kind of range it will need to transport human organs for launch customer United Therapeutics, whose CEO, Martine Rothblatt, is the primary customer for the project.
Not that Ava-XC is anything to sniff at. Although it resembles the Edward Scissorhands version of a Lancair airplane, that prototype has successfully completed more than 200 test flights, most of those with Clark at the controls. “It was an amazing learning experience — it showed us what the most important things in an eVTOL [are],” Clark told the audience at TexasUP.
To design Ava’s successor, the Beta team started with the mission requirements — carrying two people and an appropriately packaged human organ — then applied “the very first principles of engineering,” Clark said. “Make it light, store a lot of energy, convert that energy efficiently, and make a slippery airplane. Then do it in the simplest way possible.”
Although their effort started with sketches and computer modeling, it quickly moved into scaled models. “Analytics are great, but it’s hard to hold this team back [from] building real things,” Clark said. “The team here is going through flight testing of scale models over and over and over again, and battle-hardening themselves for the real test. . . . .
“They’re [exploring] the limits of transition corridors, and failures of motors, and lost links, and IMU [inertial measurement unit] failures, and all these things that we don’t want to do in the real plane.”
To validate the edgewise flight loads on ALIA’s VTOL propellers, Beta modified a Ford F550 truck for high-speed ground testing — an approach that is as “simple and easy” as it is effective, Clark said. “We get it to 120 knots, build a 14-foot rig on top of it, put one of these propellers up there, and rip down the runway.”
The team has also built a complete “iron bird” test rig to validate integration of the aircraft’s systems, and experiment with different approaches for pilot control. Clark said that Beta is additionally using the iron bird to test failure modes in a way that will gain credit toward certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“This is something that’s important to our program — that we build and deploy and engineer three to four times the amount of test equipment than we do airplane equipment,” he said.
Even with the intense focus on readying ALIA for its upcoming first flight, Beta is not neglecting the ecosystem in which it will operate. As Clark put it, “none of this works without a recharging pad,” so Beta and United Therapeutics have been developing prototypes for a network of recharging pads up and down the East Coast, strategically positioned for organ transport missions.
The recharging pads will perform “energy arbitrage” using battery installations to avoid putting peaky loads on the grid. According to Clark, this should reduce the need for utilities to rely on fossil fuels to meet demand, and can further support the broader penetration of renewables by providing stabilizing real and reactive power back to the grid.
Beta and United Therapeutics are even designing homey rest quarters for the pilots who will be flying the organ transport missions, since “the pilots are really important in this thing,” Clark said. He noted that Beta is simultaneously developing a flight training curriculum that will prepare pilots for this new type of aircraft, which is not quite a helicopter, and not quite an airplane.
“A theme which I think we all need to be aware of as an industry [is] a lack of pilots. . . . We need to inspire a new generation of pilots, and train them in a way they know to learn,” he said.