Vermont startup Beta Technologies wants to fill the skies with full-size, battery-powered airplanes. Planes that deliver cargo and transport people with less impact on our planet. And while electrifying vehicles with wheels on the ground—cars, trucks, and bikes—has been a fairly straightforward problem to solve, hefting today’s heavy batteries into the sky is far more challenging. And for Beta Technologies, it’s meant testing, testing, and more testing.
Much like the Wright brothers in the open fields of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Beta Technologies is constantly tuning prototype crafts––both full-size and miniature versions––to understand which components are working as planned, and which aren't. But unlike the Wright brothers, who mostly knew a design was working if they didn’t fall out of the sky, the availability of tiny sensors and high-powered cloud computing means a far more granular and data-driven method to pioneering a new approach to flight. Using AWS, Beta Technologies processes and analyzes a torrent of information during each test. Prototype aircraft transmit about 1,000 data points to consoles on the ground, at a rate of about 100 times each second.
"Because we use computational fluid dynamics and systems modeling, we have a complete plan-model of the aircraft," said Founder and CEO Kyle Clark. "We can then take all that data and 're-fly' the full-size plane in a simulated environment and make those models better and better and better. That allows us to develop the final aircraft much faster."
If it seems like Beta Technologies is starting from scratch, it’s because building a plane that runs only on electrical energy means reimagining the plane’s entire system of mechanics. Traditional fossil fuel–based crafts come with a lot of constraints: fuel storage, piping and machinery to distribute the fuel to the engines, heating and cooling systems, exhaust, and so on. With an electric motor, much of that goes away, and a new set of engineering questions takes its place.
Still, as Clark said, using an electric motor "is way easier than fossil fuel propulsion."
Clark explained that Beta Technologies can affix the plane's prop to the rear of the fuselage, rather than the front, because their aircraft don't need air to cool the fuel, and electric propulsion is more efficient than fossil fuel propulsion. This makes the entire craft more aerodynamic, reducing drag and improving efficiency. And because electric motors deliver a constant torque, Beta Technologies can install four small rotors on the top of the craft, like a helicopter or drone, so the plane can take off and land vertically.
"If we can use what we have now for technologies at a faster rate and get them adopted, then we're going to turn the corner on climate change faster," Clark said. "By having better (power usage) estimators based on the data, we get to use more of the battery, which means we have a more commercially viable product."
The capability to take off and land vertically also removes—quite literally—a huge component of modern air travel: runways. Because Beta Technologies' crafts can lower into tight areas the way a helicopter might, they have access to myriad more takeoff and landing sites, such as parking lots and hospital roofs. The company's first customers are organ donor facilities. The process of preparing an organ for the recipient's body requires a number of point-to-point transfers, made far more efficient by quick, precise aircraft.
None of the iteration and development it took to reach their prototype craft, Clark said, would have been possible without having engineers, mechanics, developers, product managers, field testers, and managers working within the same cloud environment.
"When we release new code, it goes through code-check, simulation environment, small-scale aircraft, and the Iron Bird flight simulator—all before it flies on the big aircraft,” said Clark. So, all the headers, data, and data rates have to be parsed by the same tools. In the Iron Bird, we get all the same data points that we get on the real aircraft, in the same format, so an engineer can use the same tools to analyze it here as they do in a flight test."
"You physically can't do that across 300 engineers on laptops," Clark continued. "You have to put it in the cloud. There's too much data, and you need it accessible. And you not only need it accessible here, but we have partners in other parts of the world that need access, too."
Ultimately, said Clark, building a battery-powered airplane is a collaboration.
For more details about the mechanics behind Beta Technologies' electric motors and the steps the company takes to iterate and improve them, tune in to the episode of Now Go Build, an AWS series in which Amazon CTO Dr. Werner Vogels travels the globe talking to the companies using cloud computing to change the future.