EAS IX: Tyler MacCready on Swarm Science

One of your editor’s favorite books is An Exaltation of Larks, James Lipton’s compilation of venereal terms (not what you think) for plurals of animals.  Squires who aspired to become knights had to learn over 100 such terms, according to Sir Walter Scott.  Terms of venery (references to animal flesh) include a school of fish, a litter of puppies, and a nest of vipers (going back to at least the King James version of St. Paul’s words).

One lesser known term, a murmuration of starlings, relates to Tyler MacCready’s talk on how control of the Future Crowded Skies at EAS IX might mimic the flocks of birds we see swarming and precipitously changing directions in swooping formations.

Obviously, the numbers of Sky Taxis envisioned by Dr. Brien Seeley will not come close to equaling the flocks of starlings over Rome or any other major city, but we’ve also seen that air traffic control is becoming saturated with increased traffic and that Sky Taxis would have to rely on something that would transcend current sequencing and separation protocols.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “In 2010, Andrea Cavagna and colleagues at the National Council of Research and the University of Rome used advanced computational modeling and video analysis to study this question. They found that starling flocks model a complex physical phenomenon, seldom observed in physical and biological systems, known as scale-free correlation.”

Cavagna’s researchers found there was not necessarily a single leader, but the flock acted as an indivisible whole, and “that starlings in large flocks consistently coordinate their movements with their seven nearest neighbors.   They determined that starlings coordinated through a form of group communication that has a high signal-to-noise ratio.

Concepts being studied at MacCready’s Ocean Lab, at least part of which is devoted to “enabling the future’s crowded skies.”  The Lab’s study of collective behavior will be instructive in defining how to deal with the potentially successful CAFE Foundation vision that would have 10 times the number of current airports, 10 times the airplanes at each airport and thousands of aircraft aloft during rush hour.  The management challenges might seem staggering, based on today’s central control philosophy.

Each pilot takes his or her cues from a central controller in an air traffic control (ATC) facility, whether it’s a Flight Service Station or control tower.  Distributing that control would allow greater flexibility of individual movement, suggested by the “free flight” movement that would take aircraft away from federal airways, where pilots could create unique navigation solutions for varying weather and other circumstances.  ADS-B, or Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast is one approach to giving greater freedom of flight, but still relies on broad area controls  from central authorities and GPS position reporting.  Based on other aircraft GPS reports, ADS-B helps keep different craft separate.

Birds and fish may have visual acknowledgement of their fellow creatures near them and the seemingly random movements of large “swarms” of those creatures.  As perhaps hundreds of Sky Taxis converge on or depart from a pocket airpark, the closeness of so many aircraft will require different kinds of flight management.  Even GPS and ADS-B may have difficulty in meeting this complex management challenge.

Tyler’s Ocean Lab web site defines several goals of his group.  “Our Mission is to facilitate the growth of the Swarm Robotics industry. We are developing systems for distributed mapping and distributed intervention in aquatic settings.

“Our approach is based on managing complexity to effectively guide a group of vehicles without being distracted by the detailed behavior of the individuals. We are developing hardware, software and methods to make swarms useable. We call these solutions Swarm Tools™ and they include:

“Swarm-appropriate vehicles – We follow a philosophy of group support that seeks to keep individual vehicles as simple as possible and maximize the benefits of being in a group, such as distributed sensing and more accurate relative positioning.

“Distributed architecture – Our proprietary neighbor-sensing technology enables highly redundant system integration and situational awareness, able to accommodate the limitations of aquatic communication.

“Scalable logistics – We have solutions for handling large numbers. At the front end we are developing solutions for group charging and set-up. At the back end we are developing solutions for group data collating.

“Applications – collaboration with oceanographers we are pioneering applications where a swarm yields superior results over single AUV methods.

“Management interface – We seek to maximize swarm agility while protecting the operator from complexity. Our swarms can be guided as a large, fluid mass. For oceanographers, the group delivers a map of real-time distributed data and can be actively guided to target areas of maximum interest.”

Birds might show a solution for crowded skies, according to Tyler.  Flocking algorithms devised by programmers like Craig Reynold, whose web page on “Boids” is illuminating, shows that birds rely on separation, alignment and cohesion to navigate in large groups and to interface with man-made objects in their path.  Tamas Vicsek of the Department of Biological Physics, Eotvos University in Budapest, Hungary took the Boids algorithms and expanded on them to understand how pigeon flocks, among other avian creatures, also used hierarchies to determine group flight paths.

Tyler explained that factors of attraction, orientation and repulsion between birds are distance dependent, with the birds repelled by close neighbors and attracted by distant neighbors.  This might help them have a simultaneous view of the overall shape of the flock with more detailed views of their immediate neighbors.

Started negatively, crowds are a problem, but through following laws of attraction and repulsion, can end positively.  Birds prefer groups which allow them a greater situational awareness, with neighbors acting as sensors.  This cooperative flight can manifest itself in acts such as lift sharing, as shown by Phil Barnes’ albatross or flocks of pelicans overlapping the downwash from their wingtips.

Such biomicry will certainly be useful in finding ways to provide safe arrivals and departures at pocket airparks in the future.


Diamond’s Hybrid-Electric Tiltrotor

Diamond Aircraft of Austria gave Flying magazine news of its hybrid-electric tiltrotor project – something not announced on Diamond’s own web site.  According to Flying, Diamond will partner with an unnamed “major industrial partner.”  The airplane could become certified within seven years, enabling customers to own a six-passenger vertical takeoff and landing vehicle with ostensibly high speed and the ability to set down virtually anywhere.

Diamond founder and CEO Christian Dries says the craft will be powered by two high-output Siemens electric motors with power to recharge the batteries in flight supplied by a pair of Austro diesel engines.  Since there are four propellers, the motors’ outputs would probably be split fore and aft to a pair of rotors.

Diamond Aircraft's ambitious hybrid electric tiltrotor aircraft

Diamond Aircraft’s ambitious hybrid electric tiltrotor aircraft

The unnamed concept would have a maximum takeoff weight of 6,600 pounds.  To test the concept, Diamond will build a 725-pound unpiloted prototype starting next month.  That will be followed by a 2,800-pound prototype, with the full, fly-by-wire production version coming after successful flight tests of the smaller test vehicles.

The Diamond tiltrotor will have a full-frame BRS parachute for its three-surface configuration.  Echoing Aurora Flight Science’s recent tests with another Diamond, a modified DA-42, computers will enable automatic takeoffs and landings.

Flying reports, “While the tiltrotor wouldn’t be capable of hovering for more than six or seven minutes, it could enter a hover and touch down automatically using laser scanning techniques to survey the landing area within milliseconds.”  The writer, Stephen Pope, suggests the on-board computers could ensure the landing zone is free of obstructions, or could dispense with the pilot altogether.

DA-36 E-Star 2 with Wankel rotary and Siemens motor providing power

DA-36 E-Star 2 with Wankel rotary and Siemens motor providing power

Diamond aircraft seem to be favorites for electrification and hybridization.  Boeing’s experiments under Michael Friend resulted in a DA-36 Diamond motor glider being the first fuel-cell-powered aircraft.  Airbus teamed Diamond and Siemens in two different hybrid approaches, both using the DA-36 as a base.  Eric Lindbergh with his Powering Imagination program uses a DA-36 being modified by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University students as a pure electric aircraft.

Eric Lindbergh, near tail, with Embry Riddle students working to electrify Diamond

Eric Lindbergh, near tail, with Embry Riddle students working to electrify Diamond

With its twin-motored, single-engine hybrid shown in this blog a few months ago, and now this complex VTOL machine, Diamond shows a truly experimental edge in bringing about lower emissions coupled with high performance.  It’s a combination more aircraft companies need to emulate for a cleaner future.


Another e-Gull takes flight

Richard Steeves is an oncologist in Madison, Wisconsin, on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and has hosted your editor’s visits to AirVenture in 2013 and 2014.

EO16 WB making a low pass over Mark Bierle's hill-top airport

EO16 WB making a low pass over Mark Bierle’s hill-top airport

He recently took delivery of the e-Gull he helped finish at Mark Beierle’s airport workshop near Santa Margarita, California.  The airplane was a pre-owned craft that was rebuilt for electric power in Mark’s shop.  Richard had been a speaker at a symposium on thorium reactors, a subject important to this cancer-fighting radiation specialist, and then vectored over to Mark’s field to see his “new” airplane.

Donny Morgan, who Richard describes as a "meticulous tech," works on 28-foot spar

Donny Morgan, who Richard describes as a “meticulous tech,” works on 28-foot spar

Multiply skilled, Richard previously built a beautiful example of Molt Taylor’s Coot amphibian, and spent many happy hours flying along the Wisconsin River near his home.  He writes and edits the Coot-Builders’ Newsletter, and has published three books intended to help newcomers to the Coot family – The Coot StoryThe Coot in a Nutshell and The Essential Coot.  His interest in electric aircraft manifests itself in his attendance at the Electric Aircraft Symposium four years ago, and his interest in forward-looking technology.

Crew that helped build Richard's 28-foot wing: (left to right) Mike Cummings, electrical tech; Richard Steeves, Mark Beierle, Donny Morgan

Crew that helped build Richard’s 28-foot wing: (left to right) Mike Cummings, electrical tech; Richard Steeves, Mark Beierle, Donny Morgan

Richard describes “dropping in” on Mark’s hill-top airport.  “After the thorium energy conference I drove south to visit with Mark Beierle, and to see how a complete electrical power system can be harvested from a Zero electric motorcycle and “transplanted” into one of Mark’s lightly used and well-built Gulls. Mark lives on a dry hilltop, a 45-min drive east of Santa Margarita. Since most of California is suffering from severe drought conditions, Mark’s place reminded me of a visit to Inner Mongolia 11 years ago. We divided the long weekend into flying his 2-place Odyssey, building a new 28-foot wing, and electrifying a Soaring Gull.  Getting the hang of flying one of Mark’s Gulls is a memorable experience, because the view is spectacular, and you’re sitting in a wrap-around cabin with little in front of you except for a great view! What made it especially exciting for me was taxiing down a bumpy, rutted, sandy slope at breath-taking speed and hurtling off a cliff into space above cacti, century plants and small, isolated goat farms among dry forest.”

Richard survived to return to Madison and await delivery of his e-Gull.

Mark Beierle is a pragmatic individual and likewise combined business with pleasure by delivering EO16 WB to Richard at AirVenture 2015, using it as a demonstrator during the international fly-in, then towing it to Richard’s home field at Sauk Prairie, about 98 miles south-east of Oshkosh.

Grandson Avery (11) and granddaughter Morgan (8) with a proud grandfather

Grandson Avery (11) and granddaughter Morgan (8) with a proud grandfather,  Avery had the treat of running up the motor under supervision

After losing his two-seat Electra, which was on the verge of its first flight, Richard looked West for a single-seat, electric airplane, and wrote about it in the Coot Newsletter.  “Mark had a freshly built Gull in stock, and its engine had been removed, so it wouldn’t be too difficult to install a reliable battery and motor from an electric Zero motorcycle. He also advised that I build a longer (28-foot) wing to replace the 24-footer [already on the airplane]. It all sounded too good to be true. Before year’s end I had climbed out of a sad outlook on life to begin 2015 with renewed hope. Yes, I had to give up the thrill of flying off water, but I had made that decision back in 2011. And yes, I had to appreciate the joy of flying by myself, but that also freed me from FAA oversight. My hangar-mate asked me why I didn’t just buy my old Coot back and enjoy life as in the past. But for me, that’s an earlier chapter. I want to experience electric flight with all of its ups and downs, just the way I’ve come to appreciate electricity after putting solar panels on my roof. We all need to dream, and if you can follow one with passion, it’s fun!”

Richard enjoys building and flying.  “Bravo is giving me great joy whenever the wind slows down a bit, and I’m also having great fun building the long (28-foot) wing.  This should give me 90 minutes of flight instead of the current 60.”  He’s currently using the 11.4 kilowatt-hour Zero battery.

Richard Steeve taxiing at his home field in Sauk Prairie, Wisconsin - a bit greener than southern California

Richard Steeve taxiing at his home field in Sauk Prairie, Wisconsin – a bit greener than southern California

Citing his log, Richard notes, “I take off with ~22 [kilowatts] at full throttle, but cut back to 10 – 12 [kilowatts] in cruise, and prop just barely moving on landing.  Mark encourages me to fly it down to no-charge (dead) over the field, but I haven’t done that yet.  It’s rather nice to land with a little bit of “steam” on board.”

Richard has been keeping a well-documented log book, and we’ll look at that in an upcoming blog entry when he and Martin Koxxy have more hours on their machines.

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Richard Glassock, an Australian now living and working in Hungary, sent the links to YouTube videos of a Millennium hang glider, neatly electrified and flown at this year’s Santa Cruz Salt Flats Race.  Richard has been a speaker at the Electric Aircraft Symposium with a talk on his efforts with small hybrid electric power systems for large-scale models and small aircraft.

Steve Morris, co-designer of the Millennium along with Ilan Kroo, Brian Porter, Brian Robbins, and Erik Beckman helped develop this rigid-wing hang glider to offer a lighter, more portable version of Swift.  Steve reported on his electric-powered Swift at the 2010 Electric Aircraft Symposium.

Ilan Kroo reflected on the idea of practical, powered ultralight sailplanes in his American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics paper on the design of the Swift.  “With refinements in aerodynamic control and composite structures, hang gliders will continue to evolve toward more soarable foot-launched sailplanes. If one does not constrain the designs to be able to be launched like hang gliders, much higher performance ultralight sailplanes are possible. If an acceptably reliable, convenient, and quiet propulsion technology becomes more practical, a self-launching very light sailplane may finally make Lilienthal’s vision of routinely soaring like birds a reality.”

Steve Morris performed an early test of this idea with his Millennium, mounting a Zenoah 20-horsepower two-stroke engine to his aircraft.  As can be seen in the video, the machine has a tight turning radius, allowing one to “core” even a small-diameter thermal.

Since then, Steve has mounted a pair of tractor Turnigy RotoMax motors, Turnigy controllers and Hobby King battery packs.  He reports a cost of $3,000 to $3,600 for the complete power setup.

He explains, in the notes accompanying the first YouTube video, “This video shows 2 flights made during the 2015 Santa Cruz Flats Race in my electric powered Millennium hang glider. I only used the motors to gain initial altitude and then the remainder of each flight was thermal soaring. I used nearly maximum power for the first 200 feet of climb and then minimal power for climbing while trying to stay in lift until I stopped the motors. Both flights were made using the same 2KW battery pack without any recharging between flights.”

He provides links to the Turnigy motors, controllers, and Zippy batteries.  Taking the list prices from Hobby King’s web site, the breakdown shows that battery pack is 14S – cells in series (51.8 Volts and 40 Amp-hours; approximately two kilowatt Hours, according to Steve) comprise a large part of even a budget electric airplane’s costs.

As people find neglected or partially completed hang gliders or ultralights (although Steve’s is a one-original owner model), perhaps the desire to see what they would look and fly like with electric power might grow some new aircraft and nourish some new experiences for budget flyers.  Let’s all look for opportunities.


Klaus Burkhard publishes a wonderful web site and blog on ultralight sailplanes, with special attention to the Banjo sailplane, one of which he owns and flies.  His interest in other craft is broad, though, and he recently shared news of a flying wing sailplane that can be electrically powered.  Its designer and builder, Dr. Andre’s Chavarria-Krauser explains:

“Schneewittchen (Snow White) is designed to fulfill the requirements of LTF-L, a class of very light airplanes with up to 120 [kilograms] (264 pounds – 10 more than U. S. Part 103 limits) empty weight. The requirements are quiet stringent, including not only the extremely low empty weight, but also a very low stall speed below 55 km/h (corresponds to 30 [knots] or 34 MPH).”   The stall speed is still six mph faster than Part 103 rules allow.

Snow White three-view drawing highlights compact dimensions

Snow White three-view drawing highlights compact dimensions, motor placement.  Courtesy Dr. Andre’s Chavarria-Krauser

Snow White’s all-wing configuration suits this class well, according to its builder.  Its thick center section, which could be seen as a lifting-body layout, allows lighter spar weight and light empty weight.

He explains, “To keep the weight as low as possible, I decided to use an electric drive (for example a Geiger HPD 10), as accumulators (batteries) do not count to the empty weight.”  Maximum speed with this powerplant will be 110 kilometers per hour (68.2 mph), a bit over part 103 limits.  Cruise will be a leisurely 74 kilometers per hour (46 mph). and rate of climb 1.95 meters per second (384 feet per minute).

Compact motorglider disassembles to compact parts for transport

Compact motorglider disassembles to compact parts for transport.  Courtesy Dr. Andre’s Chavarria-Krauser

The 12.5-meter (41-foot) span breaks down into four parts for compact transport, and is made of a mix of traditional-looking wooden truss ribs reinforced by carbon tow.  Dr. Chavarria-Krauser says, “The idea is to modify this traditional method and use carbon composites for the truss elements, in particular, the curved upper and lower profiles. These elements define the shape, which should be as precise as possible, also at loaded conditions.”  With an empty weight of 103 kilograms (227 pounds) and maximum takeoff weight of 240 kilograms (529 pounds), Snow White will have a glide ratio of 25:1 at 82 kilometers per hour (50.8 mph) a sink rate of 0.78 meters per second (153 feet per minute) at 65 kilometers per hour (40.3 mph).

Spars will be composed of laminated layers of uni-directional carbon cap strips to define the spar profile, a carbon sandwich for the leading edge (torsion box).  Because of the unique mix of traditional and new elements in the construction, the builder has analyzed the structure thoroughly, and followed up with practical tests, hanging plastic bottles filled with water from the test structures.

Not as elegant as an Airbus whiffle tree perhaps, but it tests structure all the same

Not as elegant as an Airbus whiffle tree perhaps, but it tests structure all the same.  Courtesy Dr. Andre’s Chavarria-Krauser

At the third stage of a four-stage development process, the airplane is in mockup now, a good way to test whether a real human can enter or exit the cockpit, and a more practical way than CAD to see if things really fit together.  The stages, either completed or in process, include:

  1. Construction of a radio-controlled plywood model, scaled down 1:4 for all sorts of flight-tests. These have shown realistic flight characteristics, with an action camera inside the craft simulating what a real pilot might see.
  2. Construction of different wing-ribs and other parts for strength-testing. Chavarria-Krauser is not afraid to break parts to find what the limits are, just like Boeing or Airbus.
  3. Construction of a full-size wing-center mockup (seating-box), which looks roomy for one and all.
Building a mockup did more than CAD could to help allow ingress and egress with spar crossing over knees

Building a mockup did more than CAD could to place seat, help allow ingress and egress with spar crossing over knees.  Courtesy Dr. Andre’s Chavarria-Krauser

Not yet done, stage 4 involves building the actual flight vehicle, which by then will be well sorted out.  The development of this craft shows a scientific bent of mind and a careful, resourceful approach to testing.

Klaus Burkhard alerts your editor that the German “slow & light” scene is not as big as it might look. “At present, we have Germany-wide only about 800 license-holders for ultralight-soaring, compared to about 28.000 license-holders for (heavy) gliders and motor-gliders. And amongst those 800 I think, there are only 100-200 pilots flying regularly ultralight-gliders.  There is still a lot of convincing-work to do.”  American soaring clubs would be happy with that client base.

He sees it as a “pity” that people are flying to earn OLC (on-line competition) points instead of for enjoyment.  He still likes flying his Banjo, and is happy doing 50 kilometers (31 miles) on a nice afternoon.


Perlan 2 Flies

Perlan 2, the pressurized sailplane destined to attempt flights to the edge of space, made its first test hop Wednesday, September 23 at Redmond, Oregon.  It was towed to 5,000 feet above Redmond Municipal Airport, stayed aloft for about a half-hour, and alighted perfectly under the expert guidance of James (“Jim”) Payne, Chief Pilot for the Airbus-sponsored project.  Morgan Sandercock, Co-pilot and Project Manager, rode the back seat and had a turn at the controls.

Preparing for Perlan's first flight, team makes final adjustments

Preparing for Perlan’s first flight, team makes final adjustments

According to post-flight chat, James and Morgan found things to their liking, with everything, including the huge dive brakes, working as designed and as simulations predicted.  A video crew, on hand to capture the event, used a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter to follow Perlan 2 on tow and through the flight, and on-board cameras captured the release from the towplane and the precise touchdown.  At all times, the varied beauty of central Oregon formed a backdrop to the event.

Helicopter video crew captured brilliant images of the first flight

Helicopter video crew captured brilliant images of the first flight

Designed by Greg Cole and built at Windward Performance in Bend, Oregon, Perlan was assembled at RDD in Redmond and readied for its tests.  Everyone involved deserves credit for superb work.  Greg continues work on his Goshawk, a two-seat touring motorglider that will be powered by an electric motor.

Airbus included this video on the Events section of their web site, showing the overlap between the planned terrestrial lofting of Perlan and Airbus’s anticipated forays into space and perhaps to Mars.  As Allan McArtor, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at Airbus Group, Inc., pointed out at a press conference following the flight, Perlan will surmount all but three percent of the earth’s atmosphere, flying in a fluid density approximating that of the red planet.

Your editor's first sight of the finished Perlan, fresh from its appearance at Oshkosh and radiant in the morning light

Your editor’s first sight of the finished Perlan, fresh from its appearance at Oshkosh and radiant in the morning light

Media attention has been intense.  Ethan Levi started that ball rolling last year by inviting Matt Wald of the New York Times to visit the sailplane, still under construction.  Ed Warnock, Morgan and Einar Enevoldson, founder and Chairman of the Board for the project, gave Matt a full day with the airplane, and the resulting article established press credibility for the project.

Since then, writers have found their way to Perlan, and a media crew was on hand for the initial test flight.  Kristina Messner of Focused Image and retained by Airbus to track the publicity surrounding the flight, compiled a mother lode of coverage, ranging from Al Jazeera to Wired, with worldwide interest and great enthusiasm.

Laurie Harden and her husband, Silvio Ricardi, brought their Piper Pawnee tow plane, with which Silvio gave Perlan a smooth pull to release attitude.  Stewart and Elizabeth Tatersall, tow pilot and instructor, respectively, for Soaring NV, Laurie and Silvio’s Minden sailplane operation, busied themselves constantly through Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, preparing and helping weigh Perlan.  Stewart and Jackie Payne, Jim’s wife, did a masterful job of taping the wings and tail on Perlan.

It was your editor’s privilege to be in the guest viewing section on Tuesday, when early tow tests were held with a ground-based vehicle pulling the large sailplane, and Wednesday, when the Pawnee performed an effortless tow to altitude.  The excitement in the crowd was palpable, with cheers ringing out over the field when Perlan released from the tow plane, and a half-hour later, when its wheel touched the centerline of the runway.

A happy moment for Linda Warnock and Susana Enevoldson as Perlan 2 releases from the tow plane

A happy moment for Linda Warnock and Susana Enevoldson as Perlan 2 releases from the tow plane

A press conference following the flight fielded questions from a global Internet audience while aerial videos taken just minutes before from the helicopter played on video screens flanking the speakers.  The good cheer and enthusiasm were unabated as the crowd sat down for a buffet brunch.  It was the finale to a historic flight and the culmination of a 23-year quest for Einar Enevoldson and over seven years of managing project affairs for Ed Warnock.

With the successful first flight behind them, the team now focuses on upcoming flights in Minden, Nevada and attempts to latch onto the Polar Vortex over Argentina in 2016.

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Chip Yates in a New Role

We are used to seeing Chip Yates breaking records – speed records, mostly – but there is a side to Chip that comes as a surprise to most, and his new position as Vice President of Marketing for Norsk Titanium AS (NTi) might come as a shock beyond surprise.   Chip continues with his other enterprises, noting, “Yates Electrospace Corporation was awarded a development contract for the U.S. Marine Corps to design and prepare to build a 1,000 pound payload, disposable drone to resupply troops in harm’s way!”

NTi prides itself on being, “The first U.S.-based 3D printing company capable of producing complex titanium components that will meet aerospace quality requirements. The patented additive manufacturing technology uses titanium wire feedstock as raw material with a patented plasma arc as heat source to offer significantly cost benefits and shorter lead times in the manufacture of titanium components.”

NTi explains, “Mr. Yates will ensure the company anticipates and exceeds the needs of its clients in the aerospace, defense, energy, automotive and maritime sectors with new product and service offerings. In that capacity, he will report to Chet Fuller, the newly appointed Chief Commercial Officer.”

Chip Yates in Suit and Tie, not a jump suit

Chip Yates in Suit and Tie, not a jump suit

For those of us used to seeing Chip astride a Pikes Peak record-setting motorcycle, or flying his Long-ESA (Electric Speed and Altitude) over China Lake on a mission to break electric aircraft speed records, the image of him in a business suit may be a bit novel.  He does have an MBA in Business Entrepreneurship from the University of Southern California, has given TED talks, speaks frequently and eloquently to young audiences on science, technology and mathematics (STEM) topics, and has 15 years in executive positions with Boeing and Honeywell Aerospace.

NTi President & Chief Executive Officer Warren M. Boley, Jr. explains his company’s interest in a motorcycle racing, flight-record-setting executive.  “Chip is a passionate and disruptive thinker who will leverage our technologies to create significant value for our customers.”

Chip thinks, “The innovations coming from the scientists at our Norway technology center can revolutionize the manufacturing of titanium and other performance materials. I look forward to opening a pipeline of safety critical, precision manufactured parts to our global customer base at unprecedented speed and cost.”

NTi’s production method works with additive-type manufacturing to create parts with “substantially lower wastage, greater production flexibility, reduced costs and environmental benefits compared to traditional production methods.  Because their Direct Metal Deposition achieves a near-net shape, little machining or finishing is required for the final product.

Finished parts require little machining or finishing

Finished parts require little machining or finishing

NTi claims shorter turnaround times and high productivity rates for large and small components, coupled with “unsurpassed process monitoring and control.”  They say their processes make “Titanium affordable for applications where traditional methods today make it impractical.”  This would benefit small electric aircraft, where every gram or ounce is at a premium.

Chip has spoken at recent Electric Aircraft Symposiums, and always brings a welcome blend of information and enthusiasm.  We anticipate that this will carry over in his new career and that titanium parts may replace aluminum and steel in his Long-ESA before long.  He even envisions complete 3-D printed aircraft!


EAS IX: Pete Lynn’s Tethered wing aircraft

Pete Lynn delivered a talk at the 2015 Electric Aircraft Symposium on tethered wing aircraft that could provide long-range transport for large-scale cargo (Pete envisions shipping containers) and VTOL operation – electric flying trucks.  He works at Otherlab, a wildly inventive operation at the historic Schoenstein Organ Factory, identified as San Francisco Landmark #99 and located in the Inner Mission District.  The group works with extremes of technology and design, “attracting research funding for early and risky ideas in areas such as ‘programmable matter’, robotics, solar energy, wind energy, energy storage, computational and advanced manufacturing, medical devices and more. These non-dilutive investments allow us de-risk the very early exploratory phase of our projects.”

Pete cautions, however, that despite his work on things like pneumatic robots for Otherlab, the ideas expressed at EAS IX are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

Pete Lynn's tethered wing aircraft would function like a large paramotor, but with the motors on the wing, rather than in the payload

Pete Lynn’s tethered wing aircraft would function like a large paramotor, but with the motors on the wing, rather than in the payload

The system trades top speed for extremely light weight in the lifting structure.  This allows hoisting a weight much greater than that of the aircraft.  For comparison, consider the powered parachute, in which the “wing” weighs perhaps a few pounds, but lifts a substantial pilot and powerplant.

”The tethered wing aircraft concept separates the main lifting wing and the payload, connecting them via a tether. This allows the wing to fly independently of the payload, and thereby facilitates vertical takeoff and landing by allowing the wing to circle overhead and lift the payload vertically. Once significant altitude is obtained the circling wing and payload can transition to forward flight, effectively becoming a very high performance rigid wing powered paraglider. The wing itself might have multiple electric propellers and sufficient thrust to vertically take off and land itself independently of the main payload. With wing lift distributed in tension, the wing need only mass a few percent of the total aircraft weight, enabling much greater efficiency and range. The far lower aircraft weight also reduces scale limitations making much larger aircraft possible. Combined with high flight rates, ton-mile costs comparable to trucks appear possible, but at much greater speeds, and with road independence.”

Elimination of a good part of wing structure allows low "wing" weight, increased payload

Elimination of a good part of wing structure allows low “wing” weight, increased payload

Similar to Nate Saint’s jungle missionary aviation tethers, in which a Piper Cub would circle tightly over a clearing in the forest, lower a basket with supplies until it touched the ground, or pick up a light payload in the bucket and circle while raising it to the airplane, Pete Lynn’s tethered wing parasail replaces the Cub with a powered parachute.  Rather than have the powerplant on the payload, as it is on a paramotor, the motor or motors will be on the leading edge of the very large powered parachute, pulling it vertically to the literal end of its tether, then transitioning to horizontal, circling flight to pull the payload skyward.

In an email to your editor, Pete explains, “The primary vehicle type that I was discussing was the tethered wing system, where a tethered wing with VTOL takes off vertically and transitions to forward circling flight above the main payload, vertically lifting the payload into the air. So both the wing and the total system (wing, tether and payload) can independently do VTOL. This one is for the flying truck market – for carrying shipping containers, so to speak.”  The thought of a shipping container flying overhead might at least initially relegate such vertical lifts to logging operations, or transport across small bodies of water or desert areas.

He also showed ideas for smaller, “generic high-speed VTOL electric aircraft,” designed around what Pete considers as an optimum speed for electric aircraft at around 150 meters per second (335 mph!), considerably higher than what most designers seem to aim for or accomplish in this realm.

Not a tethered wing, but perhaps a single-place, fast, short-range commuter vehicle

Not a tethered wing, but perhaps a single-place, fast, short-range commuter vehicle, the Hex Plane uses various means to lower total amortized cost of transport

He defends the idea as minimizing “amortized battery and vehicle cost, electricity cost being almost in the noise for lower speed craft. I think most developers are sort of making a mistake in developing lower speed aircraft (range matters little for electric aircraft that can land most anywhere on demand), as they are more expensive per mile. Fast shorter range aircraft are smaller with smaller batteries, and lower cost per mile. When greater range is desired, use multiple hops.”

He sent an email clarifying the idea of cost and “noise” involved in his design.  We include them here because they are simultaneously informative and challenging.

“The electricity cost in the noise argument is simply that the cost of filling an aircraft up with electricity is very small compared to the general hourly cost of flying. For example, a Tesla costs around $10 to fill up, and uses maybe $2 of electricity an hour. The hourly cost of operating the vehicle is much higher than this.

Pete Linn breaks down the true cost of Tesla ownership

Pete Linn breaks down the true cost of Tesla ownership

“Even the battery cost is much higher than this, for example, assuming a Tesla battery replacement:

“$12,000/85 kWhrs / 500 cycle life = $0.28/kWhr for the battery alone, which is around three times the cost of the electricity that goes into it. Hence the desire for higher cycle life batteries and markets that enable multiple charge cycles per day – so as to get ‘amortized’ battery costs down.

“A small high speed short range aircraft will have a much smaller battery than a Tesla, and the cost of filling it up will only be a few dollars. The cost of operating the aircraft is much higher than this, hence using more electricity to fly faster, covering more miles per hour of use, actually reduces overall per mile operating costs.

“Car life is measured in miles, aircraft life is measured in hours, hence flying faster reduces “amortized” aircraft cost per mile.”

Electric vehicles, including aircraft, will need the benefits of lower battery prices and longer battery life to become totally competitive economically.  This is happening, fortunately.

Pete Lynn’s economic and performance thinking comes from a new outlook on these matters, and may make many ponder that outlook, but it also comes from someone who is helping design a very different future.


Dr. Yi Cui’s presentation title ended with, “from Fundamental Science to Commercialization,” an indication of the long, tough road that new developments are forced to take.  Considering that Sony introduced the Lithium battery as a commercial entity in 1991 (and that following at least an 18-year slog from laboratory to mass production), mostly incremental changes have come for the chemistry, echoing Dr. Cui’s pronouncement at EAS III that lithium batteries followed a “growth curve” of about eight percent per year, meaning that about every nine years, they should double in performance.

Amprius batteries designed in America, made in China

Amprius batteries designed in America, made in China

Cui’s estimate has been borne out in reality, Nature magazine reporting in 2014, “Modern Li-ion batteries hold more than twice as much energy by weight as the first commercial versions sold by Sony in 1991 — and are ten times cheaper. But they are nearing their limit. Most researchers think that improvements to Li-ion cells can squeeze in at most 30% more energy by weight.”

Cui spoke of attempting to reach five times the energy integration of current cells, and asked how much energy can we integrate in a given weight and volume?

Beyond the CAFE Foundation’s interest in such breakthroughs to help promote electric vehicles, especially aircraft, Dr. Cui discussed integration of energy storage into the electrical grid, “one of the greatest inventions in human history.”  He talked about using hydrogen as a host for ions in such energy storage, and that host materials could be stable or unstable.  Stable hosts would not move in charge/discharge cycles, and would hold volume changes to less than 10 percent.

Where Amprius batteries are headed, according to Dr. Cui's EAS IX presentation

Where Amprius batteries are headed, according to Dr. Cui’s EAS IX presentation

Possibly because lithium represents only three percent of the cost of a battery, Cui has turned to other elements of cell construction, and explored nano materials, including nanocrystals, nanotubes, graphene, nanowires and the use of nanokinks that develop in such wires, and that can be exploited to gain even more energy from the materials and reduce overall battery costs.

Those materials work well to produce more potent anodes and cathodes, the negative and positive electrodes in a battery.  But Cui, and his company Amprius, are investigating the advantages of a solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) in batteries.  Several companies are investigating solid electrolytes because they add a level of safety to batteries.  It’s the leaking liquid electrolyte that seems to be responsible for the majority of battery fires, so designing it out of cells will lead to a much safer energy source.

One of the rock stars of EAS gatherings, Dr. Cui responds to questions

One of the rock stars of EAS gatherings, Dr. Cui responds to questions

According to the Webb Group at the University of Texas at Austin, SEIs can have good or bad effects on battery performance, the “good” ones forming a compact, stable, ionically conducting layer around the electrodes, and the “bad” ones creating an unstable, ionically non-conducting layer that destroys the battery internally.  This is but one of many choices and directions that developers have to choose, and typical of the many frustrations that stand in the way of easy battery progress.

Cui discussed nanospheres that help protect the electrodes in the battery.  A Stanford report helps explain their nano size and grand importance.

“The Stanford team’s nanosphere layer resembles a honeycomb: it creates a flexible, uniform and non-reactive film that protects the unstable lithium from the drawbacks that have made it such a challenge. The carbon nanosphere wall is just 20 nanometers thick. It would take 5,000 layers stacked one atop another to equal the width of a single human hair.

“’The ideal protective layer for a lithium metal anode needs to be chemically stable to protect against the chemical reactions with the electrolyte and mechanically strong to withstand the expansion of the lithium during charge,’ said Cui, who is a member of the Stanford Institute for Materials and Energy Sciences at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.”

Another challenge battery developers have faced and which Cui, Stanford and Amprius are addressing is the formation of dendrites, little spikes that grow and on electrodes and eventually pierce that battery separator that keep things from shorting out within the battery.  Dr. Cui and his team have created “smart” separators for battery safety, one of which is a polymer coated with copper that alerts before the battery reaches a point at which thermal runaway might become a problem.  Variations on this help prevent such piercings.

If anything points to a successful outcome for Dr. Cui and Amprius, it is the list of prominent citizens and institutions investing in the company, including Trident Capital, VantagePoint Capital Partners, IPV Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, SAIF Partners, Chinergy Capital, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, and Stanford University.

Because the successful outcome of the firm’s work will give us lighter, more energy dense, less expensive batteries, the CAFE Foundation can only wish Amprius well.


Bosch Doubles Down on Solid-State Batteries

Bosch, the German electronics giant, is making a strong showing at the Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA), and showing off its solid-state Li-ion battery technology.  It recently acquired Seeo, Inc., an American startup that has been developing such a battery for several years, and will add Seeo’s research to its own expertise and exclusive patents.

Encouragingly, the company says it will be able to double the energy density of Li-ion batteries while cutting prices by half.  Perhaps discouragingly, Bosch says this will take until 2020 to bring to production.

Bosch's solid-state cell compared graphically with conventional Lithium-ion cell

Bosch’s solid-state cell compared graphically with conventional Lithium-ion cell

Green Car Congress quotes Dr. Volkmar Denner, chairman of the board of management for Robert Bosch GmbH, claiming a breakthrough.  “Bosch is using its knowledge and considerable financial resources to achieve a breakthrough for electromobility. Solid-state cells could be a breakthrough technology. Disruptive start-up technology is meeting the broad systems knowledge and financial resources of a multinational company.”

Coupling the acquisition with its 30 production projects “related to electromobility,” Bosch has been working with GS Yuasa and Mitsubishi Corporation in a joint venture – Lithium Energy and Power GmbH & Co., KG, dedicated to developing “a more powerful generation of lithium-ion batteries.”  Bosch sees Seeo’s technology as complementary to “Bosch’s systems and technology know-how, GS Yuasa’s cell competence, and Mitsubishi Corporation’s broad industrial base.”

Seeo provides the first sample cells which Bosch thinks meet automotive industry standards for durability and safety.  Dr. Rolf Bulander, Chairman of the Bosch Business Sector Mobility Solutions, claims, “Availability of the [EV] technology is not an issue, what is currently the roadblock to electrification is cost of the battery and it has to be solved. And when it is, electrification will take off.”  He sees doubling the range and cutting costs in half as crucial, obviously looking at Bosch’s projections that globally there will be as many as eight million EVs on the road by 2025, along with another eight million PHEVs (plug-in hybrid vehicles), five million hybrids and 11 million mild hybrids.  The latter is an area Bosch in which Bosch is particularly interested, having created a 48-Volt mild hybrid system of its own.

Lux's analysis, admittedly opinionated, for solid-state battery developers

Lux’s analysis, admittedly opinionated, for solid-state battery developers.  Seeo, and thus Bosch’s acquisition, get a “wait and see” rating

Lux Research Senior Analyst, Cosmin Laslau, reports that Seeo has been trying to “pivot from lower-energy LFP (lithium iron phosphate) cathodes towards higher-energy NCA (nickel cobalt aluminum) cathodes to keep ahead of the competition. It was also looking to set up joint ventures to help it scale up production of cells capable of 350 Wh/kg, a crucial step in proving its new technology.”

Lux, a group specializing in research and consulting on emerging technologies, indicates there are other solid-state players in the game, and gives its opinions on whether they are long-shots or sure things – at least as much as market foibles allow.  Imprint EnergyIlika, and ProLogium on the start-up front, and Hydro-Quebec’s IREQ arm on the industrial laboratory front, represent what Lux thinks are better bets for investors.  Others, some of which we’ve reported on in this blog, included Infinite Power Solutions, recently acquired by Apple; Sakti 3 and SolidEnergy, invested in by GM; and Quantumscape and Oxis Energy, both involved with VW.

Lux thinks there might be “a likely buying spree of next-generation battery technology over the coming years,” leading to an “unstoppable flow of plug-in and other electric vehicles.

Laslau sees the limits of Li-ion causing the automakers to look at the new, next-best thing.  “As these OEMs and their suppliers look to appeal to more buyers, the pressure for longer driving ranges for less money will push Li-ion to the breaking point, necessitating next-generation technology. For now, solid-state batteries are the best positioned to take that crown, but other families like lithium-sulfur, high-voltage cathodes, and alternative ions are worth watching, too.”

He cautions though, “Despite the growing hype around solid-state batteries, do not expect Li-ion to lose its crown in the next decade.  (Lux’s bolding) It will be surpassed eventually, and those that prepare now by securing key IP and leading researchers, will be the best positioned to prevail in the future of transportation drivetrains.”