Just a few weeks shy of eVTOL developer Beta Technologies unveiling its highly anticipated production air taxi — dubbed Alia, it’s the follow-on to its single-seat prototype, Ava — the Vermont-based company showed off its side-hustle: a modular charging platform for not just passenger-carrying aircraft, but drones, as well.
The gleaming white assembly of cargo containers sits slung beneath a spaceframe-supported helideck 20 feet (six meters) off the ground. Built over the last year on the grounds of Beta’s headquarters at Burlington International Airport, the prototype station could be a key piece of an eVTOL ecosystem that will need to be as light on its feet as the aircraft themselves.
“It’s a modular station that can be quickly set up anywhere you need, and in whatever size or configuration you want,” said Kyle Clark, Beta’s founder, while touring the 2,500-square-foot (230-square meter) structure, which is almost fully functional save for some electronics that still need to be built out. “The built-in batteries help balance the load so you’re not compromised by shifting grid power. You can charge smoothly and rapidly, and they allow you to function independent of grid-based power availability.”
Solar panels installed around the perimeter of the helideck will help keep the batteries topped off, serving as a renewable energy source for the station. This is key component of Beta client United Therapeutics’ mission. The Maryland-based biotech firm, founded by aviation visionary Martine Rothblatt, is pioneering innovations in human organ transplants, and has enlisted Beta to create its eVTOL aircraft and the supporting infrastructure for the system. In that case, the aircraft would need secure, reliable, and high-quality charging structures to support both hospital deliveries and remote charging when covering longer distances.
Those same qualities will appeal to many other potential eVTOL users, of course. Hospital locations could be critical for emergency response operations, whether via drones or full-sized eVTOL aircraft, and the elevated deck will facilitate placement in dense environments, where approach and departure angles would require more real estate than might be available. The prototype includes a 50-by-50-foot (15-by-15-meter) helipad, several of which can be assembled in proximity to maximize traffic flow.
The station also includes crew rest quarters beneath the landing pad. These can be used for relaxing during shorter charging periods or for overnight rest as needed. A lounge includes a kitchen area and room for couches and armchairs. “It’s meant to have the functionality of an FBO [fixed-base operator] when one of those isn’t available,” Clark noted. “So it’s ideal for smaller airports that aren’t as built out with services, hotels, and whatnot.” The living spaces feature easy access to the hardware the supports them, via underfloor installation or, in the case of the hotel spaces, beneath the beds. The rooms also include full blackout curtains to ensure restful slumber.
The brains of the operation sit in the power distribution box. If connected to the grid, power would flow through this unit into rapid recharge devices, the other containers, and the aircraft themselves. It includes a 250kW AC/DC inverter, control panels and stepdown transformers for 480v, 208v, 120v. It also manages power coming from the solar panels.
The idea is to allow the system to draw power from the grid as needed but also be able to modulate that flow to the vehicles in times of high demand, and to be able to function independently of the grid, should it fail or not be available in the first place. Housed in a separate container, a rapid recharge center in the prototype station includes 500kWh of repurposed aircraft batteries. (Alia will have a 350kWh pack.)
According to Beta, “the batteries no longer meet the demands of flight but are useful instead for battery arbitrage.” Beta engineer Chip Palombini elaborated, noting that while electric car batteries can be used almost indefinitely — though suffering steady capacity degradation over years, that’s mostly an inconvenience — that’s not the case with aircraft batteries for obvious reasons. Palombini estimates eVTOL batteries would be swapped out once their capacity diminishes to just 90 percent. Rapid recharge is enabled by a 250kW DC/DC inverter installed next to the batteries and connected directly to the power distribution unit. This unit also has its own heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system.
The final utility container could include replacement aircraft parts, tools, and charging components for connecting the aircraft. It has a 10-foot (three-meter) work bench, warm LED lighting, and wall-mounted storage, and it’s climate-controlled, enabling comfortable use regardless of the season.
The complex can be scaled up to include multiple landing pads and any number of hotel and lounge spaces, or scaled down to something the size of a refrigerator, Palombini said, to accommodate charging of just a single aircraft at a time.
Crucially, the entire system would also be optimal for an emergency-response network, whether permanent or ad-hoc, in times of natural disaster or, as we’re experiencing now, a pandemic or other crisis. As Clark envisions it, the system would be secure and could be made completely automated in order to limit the amount of human contact. It could be a waystation or last-mile distribution hub for emergency medical supplies to hospitals and clinics, or it could be used in relay to remote locations, allowing the aircraft to dramatically extend their range. It would be networked into remote services, whether logistical or aviation, but also have its own weather data sensors for local forecasts should connectivity be interrupted.
Clark said the stations can be produced and installed immediately, even if we’re still several years away from functioning eVTOL operations. So for now they’d be available for drone use and in emergency situations, with air taxi and eVTOL cargo flights farther in the future. Given the kind of year we’ve had already, it’s likely someone will take them up on that offer.