Why I'm working at Beta

I took a job at Beta Technologies a few months ago, and wanted to outline my reasons for doing so

First the easy stuff: local, small company that moves fast; nice, brilliant people to learn from; pays well; getting to fly on a regular basis is awesome

Now the big thing: working to make aviation sustainable

I wrote about energy usage in the very first Leftovers post, and introduced the awesome energy flow charts from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. You can see here that transportation is is the 3rd largest top level category of energy usage in the US, well behind electricity generation and just slightly behind Industrial uses. But, transportation is by far the biggest user of petroleum, and much of that petroleum energy is wasted (ie not used to actually make things move around, via things like waste heat). As such, the transportation sector is the #1 source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Within transportation, ground vehicles unsurprisingly make up the majority of emissions, at 82% (source). However, given the positive developments in electric ground vehicles, we now have line of sight to GHGs actually decreasing from ground vehicles. This, coupled with the growth of air travel and air freight (expected to 3x by 2050), means that by 2035 emissions from flights will exceed those from cars and trains, and by 2050 flight emissions will make up 25% of all GHG emissions.

So how do we tackle this? The short answer is that, as is the answer to most of our climate troubles, we electrify it! For an in-depth look at why electrification is such a game changer, check out Rewiring America.

While aviation efficiency has improved by leaps and bounds (80% more fuel efficient and 80% noise reduction since the 1960s), electric propulsion pushes aviation efficiency into new territory in a few key ways:

  • Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP): Unlike fuel engines, electric engines do not have economies of scale; that is, there's no big gain from making your engines larger. This means that you can place small electric engines all around the airframe, wherever they make the most sense aerodynamically, with no performance or weight penalties. It also means that you can build in much more redundancy and improve safety in the event of single or multiple motor failures. Combined with fly-by-wire systems (eg using electric signals instead of mechanical systems to control your airplane), this allows for fine-tuned control of your aircraft in all conditions, and paves the way to semi-autonomous and eventually fully autonomous flights.
  • Noise reduction: Given that eVTOL aircraft will operate much closer to the ground than traditional jets (think 5,000-10,000 feet above ground level vs. 35,000+ for jets), noise is a key concern. Helicopters are very noisy for a few reasons: the tip speed of the main rotor is super high, close to the speed of sound, and therefore loud (noise varies exponentially with tip speed). There are also 4 different types of noise coming from a helicopter: main rotor noise, tail rotor noise, engine noise, and airflow interaction between rotors. These create spectrally distinct noises that stack on top of each other and increase perceived loudness. Finally, because a helicopter's rotor is pretty huge, it travels at relatively low RPMs. This generates lower frequency noise, which unfortunately travels farther. DEP lets us have more, smaller rotors, and electric motors are inherently much quieter than gas engines.
  • Emissions: Obviously the elimination of petroleum is the big winner when it comes to electric aviation, but there are a few other environmental benefits. First, unlike traditional jets, there are no water vapor emissions, which trap sunlight in the atmosphere. And second, there are no nitrogen oxide emissions, another environmental concern.

So in a nutshell that's why I'm excited to be working at Beta on electric aviation! I'll talk more in a future post about Beta's unique aircraft design and go to market strategy, as I think these are key differentiators.

If you're still here, here are some more interesting aviation factoids:

  • One return flight from Montreal to London emits as much carbon emissions as heating a European home for an entire year.
  • If the aviation sector were a nation, it would be among the top 10 global emitters. It is responsible for 12 per cent of transportation emissions. 2% of emissions overall, the same as Germany
  • The global tourism industry is responsible for 8% of global emissions — more than the construction industry!
  • The US is the largest aviation market in the world. 7x China (as of 2014). China will probably pass the US around 2025. India and Indonesia growing fast as well, surpassing UK, Spain, Japan, Germany. Flights are moving from west to east.
  • Airline flying is going up 5% a year but efficiency improvements have only increased by 1-2%.
  • Airline emissions make up a little more than 3% of total emissions in Canada.
  • The total carbon impact of a single flight is so high that avoiding just one trip can be equivalent to going (gasoline) car-free for a year.
  • Planes emit 10x as much carbon as trains per passenger
  • The wealthiest 3-5% of the world’s population are the biggest users of international aviation.
  • Swapping Jet A (kerosine plane fuel) for a battery can bring a reduction of 60-80% in operating costs, 80% lower emissions and noise, and a 40% reduction in runway needs (not including VTOL), according to Zunum Aero. Also, around 75% of all flights are domestic, and out of those, around half are under 700 miles and 20% are under 350 miles. Those mileage stats work out very well for current electric aircraft hopefuls as their planes have proposed travel distances of around 350-700 miles.