Whether your summer vacation plans involve a trip to Martha’s Vineyard or to Mumbai, a small flock of aviation startups in Massachusetts are thinking about how to get you there faster.
Though the state is not an aviation hot spot like California, Texas, or Florida, there are fledgling companies designing business jets that will surpass the speed of sound, and small, helicopter-like craft that would eliminate the headache caused by a Boston-to-New York hop. Other companies, such as Boston-based Autonodyne, are creating support technologies that would allow these new kinds of aircraft to be flown safely with just one pilot — either in the plane, or supervising from the ground.
“In the 1950s and ’60s, everyone was trying to create the flying car,” says Steve Jacobson, a former Air Force pilot who is CEO of Autonodyne. “We thought the Jetsons lifestyle was coming tomorrow.”
So are these things really on the verge of takeoff six decades later?
“I’m starting to drink the Kool-Aid,” says Jacobson, who spent almost two decades developing cockpit display technology at Avidyne, a Concord company. “The technology is actually kinda sorta here — like electric motors and batteries and autonomous behaviors — and society is kinda sorta ready to accept this. Kids get a quadcopter under the Christmas tree, and we have self-driving cars starting to show up on roads.”
Jacobson says he has counted 152 companies that are developing some version of an air taxi that would ferry people around in congested cities. Many are motivated by Uber’s stated desire to operate fleets of these vehicles as part of a future “aerial ride-sharing” model; next month, Uber will hold the third edition of its annual Elevate Summit in Washington, D.C., to bring together aircraft manufacturers, federal regulators, and executives from airlines such as United and Lufthansa.
Jacobson’s company is a spinoff from Avidyne, which has sold high-end cockpit gear to aircraft makers and pilots since 1994. Autonodyne is developing similar technology for this new air taxi market and for the military, so that you could have a pilot on the ground monitoring and controlling what’s happening in the aircraft, either as the copilot in support of a human in the cockpit, or eventually as the sole pilot. (For small aircraft, some of them electrically powered, there’s a big benefit in keeping the weight of a pilot on the ground rather than in the plane.)
The company has been testing this approach with a Cessna 182 operating out of Hanscom Field in Bedford. There’s a human “safety pilot” at the controls, but Autonodyne is also testing the ability to monitor and control the craft from its office in Boston’s Seaport District.
One of the 152 companies Jacobson tallied is Alakai Technologies, of Hopkinton. It is building a helicopter-like aircraft with six small rotor blades instead of a single large one. The motors driving each rotor will be powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, a power source that combines hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction to produce electricity. That reduces the emissions of a typical aircraft, and it can be “refueled” quickly (rather than recharged slowly, like batteries.)
Cofounder Brian Morrison, a 24-year veteran of Raytheon, the defense contractor, says there are more than 50 employees, contractors, and consultants “working on the program,” but he didn’t want to divulge details in advance of a launch event planned for this week.
Jacobson says the company’s full-scale prototype aircraft “looks very helicopter-like,” and that “they’re on the verge of flying. They may be days or weeks away from their first flight.”
Like Alakai’s helicopter-like craft, the aircraft that Transcend Air is designing would be able to take off and land vertically in urban environments. But it would be powered by a traditional Pratt & Whitney jet engine that will turn two rotors. Transcend has been flying a one-fifth-scale prototype aircraft on private property in the Boston suburbs, says chief operating officer Peter Schmidt, and is using data from those flights to help shape the final design specifications for the aircraft.
But Schmidt says that Transcend hopes to be an airline, not an aircraft maker.
“It’s really like the Apple model,” he says. “They don’t manufacture their hardware; they partner with the world’s best to do that. So we’ve designed the aircraft, and are proving that it works, but we plan to hand the manufacturing and certification over” to an experienced supplier like Boeing or Bell.
On its website, Transcend lists a 36-minute Boston-to-New York flight for $286, traveling to and from heliports near downtown. Montreal to Toronto would take an hour and cost $325. The goal is to launch the service in 2024, Schmidt says.
And Transcend does plan to hire human pilots. “Convincing the FAA and the public that [autonomous flying] is safe could take a very long time,” Schmidt says. Transcend has five full-time employees and has raised about $750,000 in funding, Schmidt says.
Perhaps the most interesting long shot on the local aviation scene is Spike Aerospace, a tiny company that aims to build an 18-passenger supersonic business jet. CEO Vik Kachoria won’t say how much funding Spike has collected. But the company aims to fly a small prototype aircraft this fall, at less-than-supersonic speeds, and get a manned demonstration vehicle in the air by 2021 that will prove Spike’s design works, while creating less of a sonic boom than the Concorde did. (Its sonic booms meant the Concorde had to fly slower over populated areas and could go supersonic only when it was over the ocean.) The starting price for the plane? $125 million.
One of the only companies mentioned in this piece that flies passengers today is Linear Air, based at Hanscom Airport. It runs an on-demand air-taxi service using boring but reliable single-engine prop planes that take off from and land at traditional airports, with a carbon-based life form at the controls.
Sometime this summer or fall, Linear plans to begin testing a short-hop service using a German-made gyrocopter called the Cavalon. It has two seats, a chopper-like rotor above the fuselage, and an airplane-like propeller at the back. It flies at a top speed of 100 miles per hour. Herp wants to try offering flights from airports along Interstate 495 to Logan Airport for about $100 — less than the price of a ride in a Town Car summoned using Uber’s app.
Herp calls it an “evolutionary step taken on the path to revolution.”
Are you ready for takeoff? Or will you be on the ground, shaking your fist or attending community meetings to protest the buzzing traffic overhead? I don’t think the Jetson-esque future of air travel is assured.Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.