Yeshwanth Premkumar is BAE Systems’ business development and strategy lead for electrification in aviation, responsible for steering the company’s approach to this rapidly growing market. In addition to speaking with him about the specifics of BAE Systems’ involvement with electric aviation, we also had a more wide-ranging discussion with him about electrification across various domains, the drivers behind this electric revolution, and the importance of supporting infrastructure. Following is an edited version of our conversation, conducted by phone and email.
eVTOL.com: Tell me about your background and how you got involved with the electrification of aviation.
Yeshwanth Premkumar: I’ve been at BAE Systems now 16 years running. I started as an engineer in aerospace on the defense side of things. I got an opportunity to explore how we go about creating and winning new business as part of the new acquisition team. Following that, I had the opportunity to execute a program that I was very close to for a power solution in ground combat, and that got me into the military ground market and focused on power and energy with non-traditional solutions.
Then I [moved] into the commercial team where I focused on a next-generation propulsion solution for heavy-duty ground transport . . . and [worked] on creating a new adjacent market for clean power and propulsion technology in the maritime market. So that was the better part of my career in the surface transportation market in commercial and defense — working on new and non-traditional power solutions and propulsion systems. I was part of engineering, technical sales, product management, program management, and business development teams in those 12 years and learned a lot.
One thing that was phenomenal to me was to realize how there were no limitations on what we could do with a simple system that replaced an alternator with more advanced generators. That was 2006; by 2009 we were looking at about 15 to 20 different applications of the same system: one that could provide power, one that could provide electric boost, another where it could create an arbitrary placeholder for an electric or hybrid system in the future.
I started focusing more on zero-emission technology — whether it was electric or fuel cells — and how to commercialize those technologies. And in the process of commercialization and creating these new markets for advanced propulsion systems, I was able to use that realization about technology and define how it transferred, applied, and supported multiple markets. In the process I started noticing other elements that supported the adoption of technology — like infrastructure, support, facilities, and trained staff — were opportunities and obstacles that we as technology teams also had to define solutions for. How do you create a charging or a fueling infrastructure for electrics and hydrogen, what are the needs there? How do you drive that infrastructure element, who are the right people to get involved? I started focusing more on that ecosystem element around these technologies, and this took me through almost 2017.
When I was asking myself what’s next, BAE Systems said, “Hey, we’re seeing a trend in aerospace, what do you think?” And when I started looking at it I was like, “Alright, a new transport medium I have not spent a lot time in, and the next obvious natural place where technology and product capabilities fit, with similar but slightly different manifestation of the challenges, especially in infrastructure.” It naturally caught my attention and I said, “Yes, I want to be part of this.” So I moved into the aerospace side in mid-2018.
My biggest reservation about aerospace was that things move slow versus ground and maritime, where you can pretty much put a platform in the water or on the ground 12 months after you think about it. But the pace at which the aerospace industry moves today is nothing like what we’ve seen in the past, and it definitely fascinated me to see how creative and innovative the industry was in terms of approaching it, and how much synergy there was on the technology front, the engineering front, the social need aspects with other transportation mediums with its own unique challenges. That’s what really hooked me into this space.
eVTOL.com: What are some of the ways in which you see the aerospace market for electrification being different from those other markets that you’ve been involved with in the past, and also some of the ways in which they’re similar?
Yeshwanth Premkumar: I’ll start with technology and why it’s different from other markets. Aerospace has always been the most regulated of the transportation markets in the world, and for all the right reasons. None of the other platforms fly at 30,000 feet above the ground. You can’t afford a dark airplane condition, ever. I think that aspect of safety is what has made aerospace always this elite and premium realm to be part of. That supply chain, the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] have all grown and matured and developed with the understanding that to play in this market, you have certain rules that nobody else understands.
The aerospace market has had lots of desire starting in the early 2000s to go into the all-electric realm, and there has been lots of experimentation. But the problem in trying to create technologies specifically for aerospace [is] we have to have data to show how it works, how it compares with existing technology, the changes in regulation based on this data, and then define the certification needs. When you don’t have all of that, it becomes really hard to walk into someone’s office and say, “We’ve tested enough to know that it’s safe,” because that word “enough” becomes so relative without any backing.
Now with electric propulsion making its way into automotive, into larger ground transport, into maritime and rail, there is an abundance of data available to show its relative reliability compared to conventional technology. We can trust these systems and solutions. And once you have that information available, now it’s just a question of transitioning that knowledge, that capability, and that technology over to a new medium and defining all the necessary elements to show that it’s safe in that as well.
The challenge will be to make sure we demonstrate safety through certification and get the social acceptance to change what we have all come to trust and depend on. It’s great to see so many of us in the industry from supply chain and airframers engaged with the regulatory bodies, research and development teams, and the collaboration between the commercial and military domains to make this happen.
eVTOL.com: What about the driving factors behind the electrification of aerospace, are they similar to what’s pushing electrification forward in those ground and marine markets?
Yeshwanth Premkumar: There are multiple factors. The desire to go green is an environmental factor which is a big one given the global conditions today. What people have now realized is green technology is not just green for labeling and branding, but it actually has economic payouts, so operational cost benefits. When you look at a hybrid bus versus a conventional bus, the hybrid bus operation is less expensive than the conventional bus, and that has an economic payback to the operator. Maintenance and operations is a big part of most aerospace operators’ cost, so helping to drive that down is very important.
Then there are the intangibles that surround the hybrid, all-electric with battery, or hydrogen-based solutions. These are natural next steps and the future of aviation. Simplify the system architecture, make the platform less complex due to the complete digital nature of the solution, more cross-market collaboration, improvement in socio-economic standards due to the creation of higher-skilled jobs.
Then there are lots of enablers that play a role, which is the availability of technology, global maturity in terms of knowledge base and expertise, and then the validation of delivering on needs. Can electric propulsion deliver on a normal, day-to-day commercial consumer’s needs? And the answer today that we’ve seen in ground and maritime and rail is, “Yes, it can.” Does it need a little more work in terms of maturity and making it better fit for aerospace? Absolutely. But the general answer is yes, it’s available, it’s ready, and can be used in terms of delivering on needs.
eVTOL.com: Let’s talk about infrastructure, because you touched earlier on how important the entire ecosystem is in these other fields, and the eVTOL industry certainly is coming to appreciate how important infrastructure will be for the success of that market as well. How do you see aerospace infrastructure needs being similar to and different from infrastructure needs in some of those other areas?
Yeshwanth Premkumar: If you start with automobiles, automobile infrastructure needs are distributed, meaning you don’t have a centralized location where all the cars go to charge and then depart — that’s more like a transit bus model. Mass transportation, buses and trucks, is going to be more centralized. If [an infrastructure model] is centralized to a local government or municipality, then it’s more regulated, controlled, and paid for by the city or the municipality. Anything that’s distributed is usually privately funded and supported with some aid from the government.
Aerospace is different: it is centralized for large aircraft, distributed for business jets and private aircraft. These are all funded and supported by different public or private entities. And now we’re talking about eVTOL, which is going to be even more different than all the others. When it comes to eVTOL, these small electric platforms are going to fly around cities; the city is going to determine what can fly where and then figure out how to support those. So now you have so many different players involved. To add to this, you have certification to FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] standards and regulations for safety, that is above and beyond.
With eVTOLs specifically, people talk about urban traffic management. People talk about communications. They talk about autonomy. And they talk about energy management or energy infrastructure. All of these are important, and they all have to be solved. But we’ve got to look at how do you solve each one of them so that it not only solves the eVTOL problem, but so it aids and enables a surrounding metropolitan area to be more efficient across existing transport mediums.
eVTOL.com: With these new aircraft and the ecosystem supporting them, what do you think is the ultimate vision for how they can change our society?
Yeshwanth Premkumar: When you add something new, you’ve got to think different. The Apple iPhone wasn’t just created to say, “Look, here’s a new phone, and it looks better and cooler than a BlackBerry.” There was a larger, deeper message there. It changed and enhanced your day-to-day life, the way you communicated, the way you were connected to a larger ecosystem and the world.
I will talk about eVTOL first and then UAM [urban air mobility]. For eVTOL, it is a mode of transportation that has multiple utilities: people, cargo, logistics, rescue, emergency support, and the list goes on. It could be manned or unmanned, which creates new dimensions for operation within these use cases. It has the potential to fill gaps and enhance existing transport mediums with infrastructure elements. It’s a highly flexible transport platform and fits and operates in big cities, rural areas, between cities or in cities and rural locations. The ‘e’ for electric makes it not just flexible, but it also makes it a lot more appealing from an environmental, social, and economic aspect. This will create additional socio-economic opportunities in the urban and rural communities, create an avenue for essential needs and supplies to be available when needed, and support local and micro economies.
Now, urban air mobility is just one use case for the eVTOL. Sure, the original plan was carry people within a city, to improve on the congestion, urbanization, limitation in growing ground infrastructure. It could also be used to help people commute around cities, from one suburb to another, without having to create any real ground infrastructure. This creates the possibility of picking a countryside to set up a new work hub, with all the work at home, where you can go in if you get bored working from home and use an eVTOL to get from a city center and back.
So the use cases are tremendous in terms of how eVTOL can be applied. The list keeps growing, and in all cases we see value that eVTOLs can add, especially in areas where current platforms have gaps. It uses a lot of the common infrastructure from ground and maritime. It has already bridged the ground and air transportation mediums through technology and as we move into the future, we will see the bridging of utilization, infrastructure, possibly even training and support. It is going to be a very exciting future.