Future of Travel

What does it take to get electric aviation tech off the ground?

Beta Technologies COO Blain Newton spoke to Tech Brew about all things electric aviation.
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Blain Newton

· 8 min read

Ground transportation is marching decisively toward an electric future.

But what about the skies?

Electric propulsion technologies are beginning to take flight as well—a step toward reducing climate-warming emissions from an industry that is responsible for nearly 3% of total greenhouse-gas emissions in the US.

Vermont-based electric aerospace startup Beta Technologies is betting big on the idea that electric aircraft could not only help address the climate crisis, but also transform air travel as we know it.

Beta is developing batteries, electric motors, charging infrastructure, and electric aircraft itself. It’s in the process of obtaining certification from the Federal Aviation Administration for its zero-emission, battery-powered aircraft (dubbed Alia).

Alia has both electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) and electric conventional take-off and landing (eCTOL) variants. The aircraft has logged tens of thousands of miles on test flights, including a trip totaling more than 2,000 nautical miles from New York to Arkansas and back.

Beta is building out charging infrastructure to serve the entire sector, with dozens of charging sites already in operation or in the works. It has agreements with three major fixed-base operators: Atlantic, Signature, and AvFlight, according to the company.

Following a Series B funding round in 2022, Beta’s total funding came to around $800 million. And, according to Beta, it has signed up UPS, Air New Zealand, and United Therapeutics as customers.

It’s just one of many companies working to electrify aviation, including ventures focused on trying to crack the more difficult proposition of passenger flights. Short-haul flights, at least for now, are widely considered to be the most realistic scenario because of current limitations with battery technology.

Tech Brew recently caught up with Blain Newton, Beta’s COO, about the startup’s ambitions to decarbonize aviation and democratize electric air travel.

“We see this as a leapfrog technology in parts of the developing world—even parts of rural America where it’s really expensive right now in the Gulf Coast, for example, to move things like an anti-venom [between rural hospitals],” he said. “You can start to open the aperture and say, ‘Well, instead of flying a $2,000-an-hour helicopter down there, if I can fly it for 300 bucks an hour, what other missions can I do with it? You start to unlock all these new things in rural health access, in regional passenger movement, opening up some of the 5,000 airports that are really not utilized that much in the US.”

These opportunities aren’t in the distant future, he insists: “What the world’s about to see—not in a decade, but in a year or two—is this step-function change in what air mobility means and really getting into democratizing air mobility.”

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you pursue a career in aviation?

I grew up around airplanes. My stepfather was in the National Guard; I spent a lot of time out at the base, a lot of time at airshows, got early rides as a kid and kind of fell in love with it, and then had wanted to go to the Air Force Academy but decided at the end not to…I got into healthcare and ran healthcare and data analytics companies for about 20 years, and then had the opportunity…to step in as one of the early non-engineers hired at Beta…I was incredibly excited to get back into aviation, but more importantly, to get back into what I saw as the opportunity to decarbonize aviation.

How would you characterize where the aviation industry is, in terms of electrification?

We’ve just reached the point over the last several years where technology, up against Mother Nature and the laws of physics, allow for what we see as commercially viable missions.

Everyone thinks, when they hear electric aviation, immediately goes to air taxis, “We’re gonna jump over traffic,” and that’ll come. No question, that’ll come…But we actually think that the market is almost insatiably hungry for other forms of advanced air mobility. We see that in medical applications; we have a partnership and customer relationship with United Therapeutics, which is in the process of manufacturing organs and distributing organs. We see that with UPS, which has a large fleet of small feeder aircraft that fly all around the country. And longer-term, redesigning a network to keep pace with the e-commerce boom. The industry is very much ready for electric aviation.

As a mission-based company focused on decarbonizing aviation, it’s hard to say this, but it’s not about the sustainability of it. That’s certainly an element; it goes into the calculus. It has to…But it’s not about the sustainability for these big fleet operators that we’re selling to, unlike some others in the industry who are operating their own airlines. The bottom line matters…When we fly two hours in our aircraft, it costs $15–$17 in energy. When you fly a comparably sized fixed-wing aircraft, it’s like $700 in fuel. So you’ve effectively rendered fuel costs irrelevant. But the big get here is…the maintenance cost goes to nearly zero…So you bring the operating cost down to well under half of a comparably sized aircraft and significantly more than that of a comparably sized helicopter. So you can now get into missions that were previously done by trucks or open up new markets that the cost of air travel was just not viable.

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The automotive industry has coalesced around battery-electric vehicles as the leading clean-energy technology. Is it a similar story in the aviation space?

It’s certainly coalescing around charging standards. You see some folks out there looking for advanced battery technologies and advanced chemistries and things that haven’t been done. You see some people talking about hydrogen. There’s promise in all of those over time. At the core of it, you still have to have an insanely reliable, safe, highly efficient electric propulsion system. So whether you have hydrogen or some other energy storage source, it’s still being connected to some kind of battery and to an electric motor. So we’re focused there.

We recently took over a shut-down Energizer battery facility in a small town north of here in rural Vermont, and we’ve converted it into one of the more advanced aerospace battery research centers in the world, where we’re working with lithium ion batteries available today, but we also have three or four generations ahead of new technologies—both lithium ion and other new chemistries—where we’re doing the testing to build enough data to prove that they’re safe and reliable.

What are the upfront costs for customers to electrify?

Overhauling a PT6 [engine] after 3,500 hours is an expensive and time-consuming piece of work. You basically shrink that to a very nominal cost. And so over the lifecycle of the aircraft, although you’re about the same upfront, you drive down the overall cost of the operator in a pretty remarkable way. It’s a step-function change in aerospace, and that’s where I think the interest is coming from, from these big fleet operators.

You look at UPS, they were set up with a hub-and-spoke to deliver packages to a department store. And now they’re having to deliver the same packages on that pallet that was going to go to the department store, to 1,000 houses anywhere in the country. And you start to think, How do you do that effectively? And to do it well, you need to bring down the cost of that package delivery substantively. That’s where we can step in and help in a meaningful way.

What are the logistics of charging an aircraft?

Our initial charger was a tower that had a touchscreen on it, and that doesn’t deal well with really harsh elements on an airfield. So we’ve designed a really elegant solution where the pilot or the maintainer simply takes a standard CCS plug and plugs it into the side of the aircraft. They don’t need a credit card, they don’t need to interface with the charger at all; it’s just this elegant-looking cube with a mechanized hose reel for them to move it in and out. All of the billing and logistics is handled on the back end, so you’re not dealing with it. So it’s literally just plug and play…The aircraft from full zero will charge in less than an hour. But in an [instrument flight rules] situation, you’re always carrying reserve energy in case you need to get to an alternate airport because there’s weather at the airport you’re intending to go to. From that situation, you’re maybe 30 minutes to charge. So your typical mission is probably about a half an hour, which, if you think about turnaround time of loading and unloading passengers, loading and unloading cargo, it kind of fits in that same realm of how long it would take a fuel truck to come over and refuel you. We’ve designed it to be a working aircraft that you’re not sitting overnight to charge something.

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.