Electrics Inch Forward


People who invent things—or at least some of them—are often driven by visions the rest of us either can’t see or consider fringe insanity. One man’s disruptive technology is another’s delusional fever dream. Remember Dean Kamen’s Segway? It was an invention so fundamentally disruptive it would be more momentous than the wheel. Twenty years later, humankind still walks on two feet (thankfully) and Segways are relative curiosities with minor commercial presence.

So it is with electric airplanes. The enabling technologies—improving lithium-ion batteries, powerful brushless motors and cheap, capable MEMS technology everyone carries in a cellphone—have far outstripped our modern economy’s ability to make profitable use of them in flying machines. Well, let me amend that. You will have noticed the $20 billion drone industry, I guess, which, depending on how you slice it, rivals general aviation itself.

Thus far, electric airplanes have floated along on an oily sheen of hype and their purveyors ask you to accept on faith that the disruption is coming. OK, sure, but how about showing us the damn things flying around? At AirVenture this year, they finally did. Or at least two did before large crowds, the Volocopter multi-rotor and Opener BlackFly V3, which can best be described as an ultralight human-carrying drone.  As soon as I can catch my breath, I’ll post video reports on both.

Opener BlackFly flies at AirVenture 2021.

I wouldn’t say that in the two-year hiatus since the last AirVenture in 2019 that a lot has happened, but there’s forward movement. I’ll focus on BlackFly, one of the odder looking electric flying machines with an even stranger name considering identification with a biting, annoying black pest is not a soaringly positive product connotation. Indulge me for a moment on that for this much is defensibly true: The BlackFly represents one future for general aviation aircraft and possibly a likely one.

I’m not talking about the company itself, Opener, or the machine itself or whether it can even succeed marketed as a Part 103 ultralight, but what the technology represents: It is a demonstrator and a portal into what’s coming. Never mind about battery capacity or the fine point of regulatory oversight, barriers that are real enough but will be worn down in the fullness of time, maybe a lot of time. To understand BlackFly, you have to look past next week and into the next decade or so and ask yourself if this is just a dead-end gimcrack we’ll be ridiculing in five years or something with legs. It’s the latter, in my view.

The last time I saw Opener display the BlackFly, they had a simulator you could fly and now they have a much better VR sim that I spent a few minutes with this week. If you’ve ever flown a small drone, you grasp the concept of stabilized autoflight, which means you select ON, twist, turn or push some kind of throttle to climb vertically, then release the controls. The machine hovers motionless in space right where you left it until the batteries deplete or you displace the controls to move forward, back, left or right. It’s that simple.

That’s how BlackFly flies. A single stick with a couple of buttons and a thumb switch for the throttle. If it took 10 minutes to brief a neophyte on flying it, that would be a lot. No need for a long dreary treatise on how a wing flies, stalls, power application and all the other noise we pummel the would-be pilot with before stingily allowing a slip of the surly bonds. Purists, especially those with longish gray hair and scraggly beards, will twist their frayed pearls at this point and declare this not to be real flying. And well, maybe it isn’t. It’s more like levitation, I guess. But if your desire is to make the houses look smaller or skim the tops of the corn, this is an appealingly accessible way to do that.

In the immediate short term, pilots flying these things will need a different kind of training related to how to avoid running into stuff and other risks unique to judgment under stabilized autoflight. I can’t see far enough to opine on what those might be, but I’m sure we’ll find out. Also ahead is more hand-wringing about autonomy versus human flight but all multi-rotor flight is highly automated fly-by-wire technology of some sort. So might as well get used to it. Nor should we be surprised if autoflight elements find their way into electrically powered conventional airplanes, like the Bye Aerospace eFlyer.

I’m equally sure that there will be crashes, fires and all sorts of mayhem as this technology matures. And … so what? Remember the words carved into German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal’s gravestone: Sacrifices must be made. None of this is any reason to diminish the conviction that electric airplanes are over the horizon.

By the way, I got sick in the trainer. Kind of. While flying the VR, I had no disorientation or discomfort at all. It was fun and natural and the graphics were rudimentary but fluid. A half-hour later, I got a case of mild nausea, like I’d flown 30 minutes of aerobatics. I’d like to take another whack at it to see if it’s a persistent effect.

Chinese Money

After I got done filming the video report on Icon, I was approached by someone in the booth who asked if I had confronted Icon about “the Chinese money.” This question comes up from time to time and I have to think the people who ask it know there is no answer.

In this case, the man asking was clearly implying that China is a bad actor whose capital no American business should accept in the name of common decency and morality. Right on the first count, I have no answer on the second.

China clearly is a bad actor. It has been chronically dishonest about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it’s a regional bully and has engaged in predatory trade policy. It’s also a source of capital outflow and it’s no secret that much of the U.S. general aviation industry is funded by the Chinese ATM. This is due almost entirely to American-style capitalism, wherein the money naturally finds the most efficient way of multiplying itself.

So the people to ask are those who sold Continental, Cirrus, Mooney, Diamond and other companies to Chinese interests. Western investors had every opportunity to buy or invest in these companies and in fact had multiple opportunities. They declined and invested elsewhere. For reasons related to five-year economic plans and an actual national industrial policy, China made investments with ROI (if any) decades in the future rather than in the next three quarters.

And they weren’t necessarily genius about it, either. Mooney proved to be black hole for the private Chinese capital that went into it—$150 million alone for the aborted M10 trainer, I’m told. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if Mooney were fire-saled back to a U.S. owner. Mooney, by the way, was not at AirVenture.

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  1. I guess the question is, will we have an extended period of manual flight with stability augmentation, or we simply segue (ha ha) directly into full autonomous “go there and land” transportation?

  2. Elmo Maurer, the iconic 60’s and 70’s era director of Spartan School of Aeronautics flight school at RVS used to pontificate in his strong Scandinavian brogue, “If it don’t look like an airplane it won’t fly!” Being a devotee of Elmo’s, I’ve always believed that. So though I’m clean cut, clean shaven with no frayed pearls to twist, I’m given to declaring that Opener BlackFly flying is not real flying. However I’ve also undergone the transformation of flight decks from steam to magenta, so I’ve come to realize that anything is possible, not the least of which is electrically powered levitation. But I’ll age out before I become involved, much less interested in trying it. Go for it, those of you who don’t care for rudders anyway!

    As for the Chinese Money paragraphs; Paul, I love you but I just couldn’t watch yet another video report on Icon. I just can’t. Sorry.

  3. I’ve been flying R/C models for 49 years (airplanes, helis, and multicopters with a Part 107 certificate) and GA for 36. As long as I can remember the electronics in my models were more advanced than those in the GA planes I’ve flown.

  4. Paul B – I also get nauseous when using VR. I have discovered that my nausea is motion-cue related. I have the same issue on a boat on the water. If I am in a cabin without windows, I get nausea instantly. I handle it by stepping outside – if I can see the horizon, I’m fine, presumably because the visual motion cues match the vestibular ones. It is the opposite problem with VR – I can see the horizon move with my eyes but absent of vestibular input. I built an $8k helicopter simulator which I am only able to use by taking motion-sickness pills. Bob

    • I too experience some nausea when playing certain video games and VR devices. Your description is one of the factors, but also it seems to depend on the computing power and screen refresh rate of the equipment. The human eye is accustomed to seeing as an analog (non-digital) organ that senses motion in a smooth sequence. VR and computer games present the video as a digital sequence of discrete pictures that change rapidly enough to fool the eye into thinking it is one continuous motion. But, if the computer processor or the display screen refresh rate cannot change fast enough, you get a strobe effect that can be quite disorienting. I noticed that things got a lot better with a new, more powerful computer and a good non-interlaced monitor. Or, just take a break every 5-10 minutes to let you eyes and brain rest.

  5. I’ve long felt that the lack of growth of GA was related to the difficulty of learning to fly and the huge primary-interest and energy required to remain a skilled and safe pilot as much as the high cost. Automated flight (full or with some input from the “pilot”) would solve that difficulty-part, making flying as easy as (or easier than) driving. I probably won’t be around for it, but it will and should come.

    • I think the challenge is a feature rather than a bug, at least until you get into some of the silly test questions and minutiae that have less to do with flying than they ought.

      I’ve been saying forever the reasons beyond cost are a combination of flight schools being terrible businesses which practically require talents in contradiction to marketing, and aircraft that simply do not appeal. You take the risks and make little money while waiting for fate or the FAA to come for your money while your soul disintegrates. You gotta really love to teach flying and deal with bureaucratic nonsense. Your potential customers will call asking how much it costs to rent a Cessna, and I’d suggest telling them you wouldn’t let your kid learn to fly in a Cessna or just take your money to Vegas where you will get better odds of a return.

      We need a 21st century experience designed to get people in the door and make money doing it. The easiest path to get moving in the right direction is for the schools to make more money by selling the planes. Until the manufacturers get this right, we are likely stuck.

      We are now in a tough catch-22. You cannot land near your destination. Without VTOL or at least STOL, how do you grow?

      I recently started looking at electric self launch motor gliders. They may be one solution.

  6. Segway analogy only works for electric planes because people don’t know the history. Kamen did not set out to revolutionize pedestrian travel for the masses. He set out to make a wheelchair that could climb stairs and bring more freedom to those in chairs. The Segway was a derivative of that successful project using tech they had already developed.
    Walking is good for you, so there wasn’t quite the market they hoped, but they delivered as promised. It didn’t sell, and the Chinese bought Segway. There’s likely a good analogy in that part of the story if you want one.

      • Still, he was saying that about a product that performed as advertised. So far, the electric urban aircraft have many more challenges to overcome before you can schedule one with your uber app and have it take you downtown. That’s why I don’t like the analogy.

        It will fit much better when someone makes a product that you can buy and legally fly around urban areas which are commonly under Class B umbrellas.

  7. All the major advances in flying have been driven by propulsion technology advances. The Wright brothers succeeded where others failed because they were the first to build a practical engine. GA for everyone started when the 4 cylinder horizontally opposed air cooled engine was developed starting with the Continental A40. Reliable airline travel was made possible by the development of the 9 cylinder radial engine by Wright and P&W. Jet engine technology allowed for speeds and altitudes that was impossible before.

    I would suggest that electric power is the next propulsion disrupter. Not the fact that the aircraft is electric but the fact that that electric power allows the types of distributed power that were impossible before. There is a reason why almost all drones are electric. The 2 button one joy stick control system that Paul describes is perfect for electric power. This is why electric propulsion is the future.

  8. While we wring our hands about whether controls systems should make it easier for a human “pilot” or simply replace him/her, the technology is advancing in other areas anyway. A modern automobile has all sorts of electronic helpers to keep the average driver safer. Stability control, antilock brakes, automatic braking, speed adjustable cruise control, lane-keeping assistance and others have become pretty well standard on new cars and SUVs. Yet, no one seems to scream and protest over those advancements. Besides, there are currently several commercial and military aircraft that have required some sort of black box stability control in order for human pilots to safely fly them. Now Garmin is introducing auto land and auto glide features to get pilots and passengers safely back on the ground in case of emergency. Modern autopilots that are affordable down to the 172 crowd have capabilities far beyond what was possible even a few years ago. This stuff is coming, whether we realize it or not. Any multiple rotor electric aircraft will need some stability control system to manage things faster and better than a human is capable of doing. If that is what it takes to keep young people interested in flying, so be it. To paraphrase the old Buick car commercial, “This isn’t your grandfather’s airplane”.

  9. Wouldn’t it be prudent to work the bugs out of the “Drone Delivery” industry first before carrying passengers?

    By-The-Way, where’s my Drone delivered pizza? This video was made in 2013, I’m getting hungry… Maybe one of those people riding everywhere on their Segway will bring it?

    Do a ‘drone delivery’ search on youtube, I think the first video ever posted on the internet was a “drone delivery coming soon to you” video.

  10. The success or not of these machines in the short term depends on whether Velocopter can deliver its promise of an “air taxi” from Paris’s airports to the city in time for the Paris Olympics.
    In typical French planning policy (dating from the 16th century) once the state decides on something, little things like air-space restrictions, bans on overflying built up areas, and noise limits can be simply changed, and the company is betting on having the French decision makers on side.
    So, you might have a two-seater electric flyer, where passengers arriving at Roissy, (CDG) airport will wheel their suitcases to the funny looking taxi, heave them in and sit down to arrive in Paris 10 minutes later.
    All for around €100 a head.
    Train takes 40 mins to an hour and, from memory about €15, and taxis/ubers/illegal drivers slightly shorter time, or longer depending on traffic for €45.
    If you listen to the company the test pilot just sits there most of the time, and the problems with range and recharging are all solvable with tweaks to software.
    Of course they will have fleets of these things so there are no gaps while batteries charge — and why is this such a problem, people charge their phones every day…..
    And from commercial use, there will be a trickle down effect so that everyone living a bit far out of town, can commute in their own or a shared air vehicle in just a few years. Pay by subscription so you do not carry the capital risk….
    Could happen.
    The micro light toys will probably be like 50cc motorbikes, bought by dads, a source of worry for Mums, and fun for the kids who survive until they get a car…