The runway for futuristic electric planes is still long


Beta is one of a growing number of companies working to build small electric planes that can carry a few passengers or small cargo over short distances. Many of these aircraft are a class of vehicles called eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing), designed to take off and land without conventional runways.

“We’re trying to create a sustainable future for aviation, and that’s a big, lofty goal,” says Kyle Clark, founder and CEO of Beta. The company has largely focused on cargo delivery, raising over $800 million in funding and securing orders for its eVTOL aircraft from companies such as UPS, Blade and Air New Zealand.

Aviation creates about 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions today, and the industry’s contribution to climate change is growing. Electric planes could help reduce emissions, but technical and regulatory hurdles still loom before the industry, which is one of the reasons Beta is starting with planes that behave less like air taxis and more likeā€¦ ok, planes.

Beta isn’t giving up on its eVTOL plans, but plans to first certify a more conventional aircraft called the CX300, which will have to take off and land on a runway. The company has flown this type of aircraft on test flights totaling more than 22,000 miles, both near its base in Vermont and on cross-country treks: it traveled to Arkansas (a trip of about 1,400 miles, or 2,200 kilometers) and Kentucky (800 miles or 1,200 kilometers) on separate occasions. Those longer trips require stops along the way to recharge the battery, but Beta’s plane has flown up to 386 miles on a single charge.

Beta’s electric plane during a flight test in Plattsburgh, New York.

BETA

Beta’s approach is to pursue electric flight “in a very pragmatic way and in a way that doesn’t require three or four miracles to happen at once,” says Clarke, referring to both the technical challenges facing next-generation electric aircraft and regulatory barriers to industry.

Several of the biggest eVTOL startups have announced plans to enter commercial service in 2025. Those plans depend on receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the US civil aviation regulator. “Safety will dictate the certification schedule, but we could see these aircraft in the skies by 2024 or 2025,” the FAA said in an emailed statement.

New eVTOL aircraft will be subject to a different FAA certification framework than conventional aircraft. Because of this special process, some in the industry doubt that the agency or the companies will be able to meet the announced deadlines.

Beta plans to certify its eVTOL aircraft for operation in 2026. Others say the agency could take until later in the decade to issue approvals. “It will take longer in terms of certification, probably 2027 or 2028,” says Matthew Clark, a postdoctoral researcher in aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “These conventional electric planes will take off first.”



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