Electric cars are one thing. They’re growing. Range is an issue. Batteries are heavy and the technology has a way to go – but commercial electric aircraft? Yep, it’s coming.
Ampaire started by mostly SoCal natives in Temecula is now operating out of the LA Cleantech Incubator. And they’re pretty far down the runway with their business and plans to fly airplanes using nothing but electric power. We get all the details from Ampaire CEO, Kevin Noertker. Well… all the details he’d share anyway – some of them are top secret, sort of.
Recording date – December 20, 2017
Kevin Noertker: The reason we decided to locate the company here into LA is because it is the epicenter of new mobility. Consider us as the Tesla of aircraft. You can make a meaningful aircraft fly fully electric in the nine passenger range, and that’s really what we’re focused on. You’re looking at regional air travel, short hops. We’re in downtown LA, so let’s say we wanted to fly over to Catalina, spend a good weekend over there, we’ll be a test flying a full size aircraft next year.
Tom Smith: Welcome iDriveSoCal, the podcast all about mobility in the automotive capital of the United States, Southern California. I’m Tom Smith. And joining me today is the co-founder of Ampaire, Kevin Noertker. He’s co-founder and CEO. And what’s significant about this particular podcast is that while I always tag it the automotive capital of the United States, we are talking mobility, but today we’re talking about very exciting electric airplanes. And that is the Ampaire Company that Kevin cofounded and he and his team are developing an electric airplane right here in Southern California, specifically in Los Angeles, in the Los Angeles cleantech incubator. So Kevin thank you so much for joining me.
Kevin Noertker: It’s my pleasure. Thanks.
Tom Smith: So in your words, what really is Ampaire?
Kevin Noertker: So when we founded Ampaire on that question of what is the highest performance aircraft that’s uniquely enabled by electric vehicle technology? So we are taking all of the great tech that was developed for automotive electric vehicles and we’re applying it into aviation. So consider us as the Tesla of aircraft.
Tom Smith: The Tesla of aircraft, the idea came from…?
Kevin Noertker: My co-founder, Cory Combs.
Tom Smith: Tell me a little bit about the team and how you guys came together.
Kevin Noertker: Sure. Yes, so we are a cofounding team of three. So it’s Cory, Ryan, and myself. Cory and I had worked together back at Northrop Grumman starting in 2009 where we’re doing some advanced technology research and development. We were a real solid R&D team together there. Went our separate ways after a few years. I stayed at Northrop. Cory went to scratch his cleantech itch and did a startup internationally for a while. And then, in 2015, he’d been watching the automotive electric vehicle and aircraft technology space for a while looking to see where could they merge and when was technology really ready for the electrification of air travel. And so he reached out to me late 2015, convinced me to leave my comfortable job at a big company, and asked me to co-found this company with him, and we brought Ryan on as well and started in March of 2016. Since then we have a team of nine that we’ve built up. Brings experience for big companies like Northrop Grumman, GE and ABB, high tech startups like SpaceX and Faraday Future, and research institutions like Stanford, Caltech, and USC.
Tom Smith: So you guys are all very…well, you’re all engineers.
Kevin Noertker: Most of the team is engineers, but we do have some business development. For example, our co-founder Ryan has a background in mathematics and economics. He’s worked at various banks and trading firms in the past as well as some startups.
Tom Smith: So were you all in school in the back of your mind individually, “A startup thing might be something that is going to attract me down the line.”
Kevin Noertker: You know, I think that that you do have that little spark inside of you all that time, right? But I did spend seven years at Northrop before starting a company. So it took me quite a bit of time to get there. Cory had also thought about starting a company while he was in school. He went to Stanford. And so that’s most people coming out of Stanford have that bug at least a little bit.
Tom Smith: A pre-req to go there, right?
Kevin Noertker: Yeah, right. And so he went and joined a startup. And in about 2012, 2013 timeframe working directly for their CTO in order to gain the requisite knowledge and experience to where he was comfortable starting a company himself. And Ryan also had worked at a startup previously, so all of us had that had that idea, though, we’re all first time founders in this case.
Tom Smith: So you get the idea, but now you’re here and you’re a portfolio company of LA cleantech. Before we get to what that means from the LA cleantech perspective, how did you come to the point of being here?
Kevin Noertker: You make a commitment to yourself that you’re willing to go through with it, right, and a commitment to your cofounders. We put in money out of our own pockets to get started because you got to start somewhere, right? And then what we did was we, you know, we rallied the troops. We all had jobs, Cory was in Beijing. Ryan was in Chicago, and I was here in LA. And so, by September of 2016, we’re all three of us full time down in Temecula, California, which is where we founded the company. It was officially in Temecula.
Tom Smith: Why Temecula?
Kevin Noertker: Both of my cofounders grew up there. So we were able to bootstrap. I was paying the most for rent per month, and I was paying $400. And free office space goes a long way as well. So we really were able to carry the company on a low burn rate for those first few months while we were kind of figuring out how do you go about achieving this big vision for electrifying air travel.
Tom Smith: Batteries are so heavy in cars and hybrids. How are we going to put wings on those things, not to mention put people in the fuselage that are connected to the wings and make the whole…? I mean, how does that work? What are your biggest challenges?
Kevin Noertker: Oh sure, well, there are a lot of questions on that one. We’ll unpack that a little bit. So you started by asking a bit about how we, you know, how do you get to this, right? How do you get to the decision to make a passenger aircraft versus a small drone? Electrification can take a lot of different forms. We started, you know, back when we were in Temecula, working on this concept of the most advanced airplanes out there. You’re looking at like Elon Musk jet vertical takeoff and landing. Can you achieve that? Well, we were asking those questions. Can you go supersonic electric? We’re asking those questions too. And there is this balance between, as you stated, the limitations of electric vehicle technology. What is the energy density of your batteries? What’s the power available with electric motors that are currently available today? And then what kind of aircraft could fly a meaningful mission using that technology? And for the first few months, we were exploring those questions. And really, you have to…it’s an intricate dance and interplay between the technology viability, the market readiness and need, and the regulatory risks that go into it. But ultimately, taking technology and the most advanced battery cells that are available today, you can make a meaningful aircraft fly fully electric in the nine passenger range, and that’s really what we’re focused on right now.
Tom Smith: Fully electric can fly nine people?
Kevin Noertker: Nine people, yes. So you’re looking at regional air travel, short hops. So, right now, we’re in downtown LA, so let’s say we wanted to fly over to Catalina, spend a good weekend over there, you’d fly in a nine passenger turboprop aircraft. Or if you went over to Hawaii and you wanted to hop between islands, you very well might fly in a turboprop aircraft of this size category. That’s the first market we’re going after.
Tom Smith: How soon is that going to be a reality?
Kevin Noertker: Yes, we’ll be a test flying a full size aircraft next year, and we will anticipate having a certification, so that’s FAA approval of our retrofit into an existing airframe by the end of 2020. And so by 2021, you could be buying a ticket on one of these planes.
Tom Smith: Let’s go back to challenges. So is the battery technology your biggest challenge?
Kevin Noertker: The battery technology is the biggest limitation to the range in which we can fly. You can get plenty of power out of large battery packs. That’s not really where the challenge comes from. It is determining how far can you fly fully electric, or, the open question for many is, do you have to be hybrid electric in order to fly a meaningful range?
Tom Smith: Did I read that guys are going to do the hybrid first or are you going to go fully electric first?
Kevin Noertker: Fully electric first. We have concepts for hybrid, and we are working on developing those systems. However, our baseline and first flights will be fully electric.
Tom Smith: And electric vehicles are too quiet or can be too quiet. Obviously, air travel is extraordinarily noisy. But I know, on your website, you said you’re cutting down noise; you’re cutting down, obviously, the carbon footprint. What is it going to sound like?
Kevin Noertker: So it’s actually wonderful. The passenger experience is going to be great. There are aircraft out there currently that fly fully electric and those are trainer aircraft. And I watched a video recently where they showed two people flying one of these aircraft talking without headphones, without headsets.
Tom Smith: Where are there electric aircraft currently?
Kevin Noertker: They’re actually kind of finding their way into a number of training schools. So, coming out of Slovenia, there’s a great company named Pipistrel, and Pipistrel is building two-seat and then four-seat trainer aircraft. They’re currently certified under light sport, which makes it difficult to operate in the United States because light sport aircraft aren’t approved by the FAA to be electric. However, these trainers are what people can currently fly kind of as a hobbyist would fly or for general aviation. But, yeah, they’re at that size category. There are currently aircraft ready to fly and being delivered. So go up to Fresno, there’s a flight school there that is looking to operate, I believe, four of these aircraft. And even down here in Compton at the Experimental Aircraft Association, they have a few of these trainer aircraft ready to go. They’re just waiting on the FAA certification.
Tom Smith: When is that expected?
Kevin Noertker: Well, if they’re certified under light sport aircraft, I wouldn’t hold my breath. But if they can figure out how to get it under Part 23, then the laws are in place to allow for that certification. It’s just a matter of them actually going through the steps.
Tom Smith: So there’s electric aircraft out there, but it’s an FAA thing. We can’t do it right now. We can’t fly them in the United States.
Kevin Noertker: You can fly them but not commercially.
Tom Smith: I own one. I have a strip of land in the Midwest and a runway. I have the means to buy an electric aircraft. Can I bring it over and fly it legally?
Kevin Noertker: There’s a nuance there that I’m trying to figure out. But that’s very near term. I mean you can fly them. In Europe, they’re already flying them. There are aircraft on the ground here. I don’t know the restrictions on those particular aircraft.
Tom Smith: But it’s happening and it’s coming. It’s not a maybe kind of thing. figure it out.
Kevin Noertker: Yeah. Well, I mean, the FAA put into law the ability to certify an electric aircraft. Previously, the regulatory framework did not allow for electrification. It specified things like the size of your combustion chambers. Now that’s not very conducive to an electric motor which has no combustion.
Tom Smith: Were those just old rules that needed to be rewritten because they were outdated or is there a lobby behind it?
Kevin Noertker: Those were old rules that just needed to be rewritten.
Tom Smith: Okay, so it didn’t take too much to say, “Hey, this is old we need to adjust it.” There wasn’t a body out there saying, “No, we need to keep it just as it is.”
Kevin Noertker: No, it only took about 10 years, though. So they recognize that the rules needed to be updated. There’s a organization out there called the General Aircraft Manufacturers Association that kind of led the charge on updating these rules. And the FAA has, as quickly as they could, implemented those rules. However, it is a lengthy process to make new laws in the United States.
Tom Smith: With electric aircraft already in existence in Europe, then that means that there’s other companies that are doing exactly what you guys are doing, right?
Kevin Noertker: Similar, not exactly what we’re doing, though.
Tom Smith: Okay, so it leads me to, what is your advantage? What is your differentiator?
Kevin Noertker: Sure, so talking in very general terms here, we’re taking a very pragmatic approach in how we are approaching the market and what market we’re taking on. If you look at other players in the electric aircraft industry, there are basically three types of aircraft that we would see in the near term. The first is those trainer aircraft. So these are either brand new airframes or repurposed airframes that are turned electric in order to support the training of new pilots. So these are small airplanes with short endurance. Most of them are full electric. You also have in that category kind of general aviation aircraft that individuals could purchase and fly on their own. You have a second category of people developing electric aircraft and hybrid electric aircraft, which is in your vertical takeoff and landing urban air taxis.
Tom Smith: So that’s the flying car kind of thing?
Kevin Noertker: The flying cars.
Tom Smith: That’s what I’m talking about. That’s why we’re sitting here. That’s why I want to talk to you. Tell me when I get my flying car.
Kevin Noertker: Yeah, well, I mean, if you listen to what they’re saying, they’ll be demonstrating flying by 2020. However, to be certified in order to actually fly passengers commercially, it’ll likely be a number of years later than that. And to be at full scale, when you’re looking at instead of calling an Uber car, you would call an Uber air taxi and they’d be flying at mass, I anticipate it’ll be a bit longer.
Tom Smith: Is that essentially… Is it going to look like the drone that I see neighbors flying around for fun but just a lot bigger?
Kevin Noertker: There are some that look basically like scaled up drones. However there is some optimizations that you would make when you’re actually looking to carry significant weight and fly longer distances. So imagine a drone where you had two wings, one in the front and one in the back, and you had propellers like those four propellers or maybe more of them, and those wings tilted up, you are able to take off like a helicopter. Then you tilt forward, and then the wing actually catches the air so then you fly more efficiently than a helicopter normally would. And so there are a handful– more than a handful now– of companies that are approaching that urban air taxi use case. And we have decided to not tackle that use case. We did found the company considering those as opportunities, but, for various reasons, have decided to focus on more conventional regional air travel instead.
Tom Smith: You guys have the vision and the plan of actually becoming an aircraft manufacturer?
Kevin Noertker: That could happen. Or partnering.
Tom Smith: Licensing your technology, partnering.
Kevin Noertker: So what we’re developing right now is the propulsion technology which would enable these aircraft. When you look at the future of electric aircraft, even for regional air travel, new airplanes make a lot of sense. You can integrate propulsion units, whether it’s propellers or ducted fans, in new ways that you previously couldn’t do with a combustion engine. And so those integrations make you fly more efficiently through the air with less drag, effectively, and more efficient use of your power, more efficient integration of your battery packs. So we do see a future for newbuild airplanes. Our first step is to partner with aircraft manufacturers who want to electrify their existing planes and they’re potentially near term newbuild aircraft, and we also have some IP, as you’ve seen on our, website, the tail end aircraft which has a unique integration of a propulsion system there.
Tom Smith: So the tailwind that I see on your website, that may or may not be what we wind up hopping in to fly over to Catalina or from island to island in Hawaii?
Kevin Noertker: It very well could be, but in the more near term, you’re going to fly on an aircraft which, from the outside, looks very similar to or identical to the aircraft that’s already flying those hops today. It’s just that rather than being a loud turboprop, it’ll be a quiet electric system.
Tom Smith: If it’s a retrofitted plane that was built for combustion engine, what other things do you guys have to change, high level, in order to make it all work?
Kevin Noertker: You have the areas that you store fuel. You have all the fuel lines. You have all of the avionics or other hardware in the cockpit that display information about your combustion engine. Maybe that’s the amount of fuel you have left or the RPM of the engine itself. You then have the components directly related to the engine whether that’s the engine or various the cooling systems, thermal systems. So we have to redesign those aspects, the aspects of the aircraft which are unique to enabling the combustion engine, pull those out, and reengineer from the kind of first principles on what kind of thermal system is required to dissipate heat generated by your electric system rather than the combustion system. Electric motors don’t produce nearly as much heat. We also have to look at if you’re removing fuel and putting batteries in, where do you put those batteries?
Tom Smith: You’re going to save a lot of weight, right, without fuel and without all the extra technology that we said we’re pulling out.
Kevin Noertker: Sure, well, we’ll save weight and then we’ll fill it up with batteries.
Tom Smith: But is it going to be more? Because it seems to me like, gosh, these batteries are so darn…
Kevin Noertker: Sure. So they they’re definitely heavy, right? The battery energy density, as we spoke about, is the limiting factor for how far you can fly. Fundamentally these airframes are certified for a certain takeoff and landing weight. So you are unable to fly the aircraft if it weighs more than a certain amount when it takes off or lands. We have to stay within those bounds. So the aircraft won’t be heavier; it’ll just be a question of how many batteries can you fit in given a certain payload requirement, payload being passengers or cargo, and how far can you fly given that amount of batteries. And so that’s the, you know, design game that you play, and what we’ve found is a solution which meets the needs of the initial target market. Now these are short hop flights, but it’s achievable given a meaningful payload size and meaningful range on existing planes retrofit with electric.
Tom Smith: What are some of the models that are currently out right now flying that you guys are targeting saying, “We think we can change that plane to fly electric by means of what we’re working on right now.”
Kevin Noertker: So we have done a thorough analysis of just about every plane that’s out there in this size category, and we don’t talk about specifically which ones we’ve chosen. Sorry about that.
Tom Smith: Okay, okay, so let’s go back to the LA cleantech, you guys, and the fact you’re a SoCal startup. By the way, is there any…did you guys just happen to be here? Is there any, like, Howard Hugheses here? And there’s a lot going on in…you got Northrop here. You got Raytheon.
Kevin Noertker: Northrop, Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Tesla, Faraday Future, JPL. You’ve got a lot of great industry around here. And so…
Tom Smith: Faraday, that’s a car, though, right? That’s not electric…
Kevin Noertker: Electric vehicle, yeah.
Tom Smith: Right, right.
Kevin Noertker: So if we’re developing an electric propulsion system, you’ve got to imagine we need electric propulsion engineers. Whether the motor’s turning a propeller or a wheel, some of the underlying systems are analogous or similar between the two.
Tom Smith: Okay.
Kevin Noertker: Yeah, so you asked why we located ourselves in Los Angeles.
Tom Smith: I mean, you said your partners are from Temecula.
Kevin Noertker: Yeah, they’re from Temecula. I’ve spent the last 13 years here in LA. I went to Caltech and got my mechanical engineering degree, worked, while as a student, at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA. I spent seven years at Northrop Grumman here in Los Angeles. We’re well connected into the aerospace industry here and, ultimately, the reason we decided to locate the company here in LA is because it is the epicenter of new mobility.
Tom Smith: For all those reasons. You were here because it was here and only makes sense to stay.
Kevin Noertker: Yes.
Tom Smith: So you put your own money into the company. Do you want to say how much?
Kevin Noertker: No, thank you. We did put a sizable amount from each of our savings, though.
Tom Smith: Okay, and then how did you make your way to LA Cleantech Incubator?
Kevin Noertker: So, when we founded the company, we were up in LA. We were invited to an event here at the incubator and we had heard that they had a great advanced prototyping center so where you could actually take your ideas from the computer and build them with water jet cutters and CNC machines and other tools that are available.
Tom Smith: Like 3D printer kind of thing?
Kevin Noertker: 3D printers as well, yeah. And so we came for a tour and this is back just a few months after founding the company. And we knew that we were located in Temecula, and it wasn’t convenient for us. However, once we decided to move the company back to Los Angeles, we were doing a study of where should we move? Should we move to the South Bay where many of the aerospace companies are? Should we move up to Pasadena where, you know, my Caltech network and JPL are located as well as a number of other aerospace startups? We ultimately decided that Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator had the resources that we needed in order to help us both grow the company in a in a business sense.
Tom Smith: And what does that deal look like? Is it every company or is it cookie cutter for, you know, “Hey, you come in, we take this percentage of the company and we give you these resources and this money and away you go,” or how does it work here?
Kevin Noertker: Yeah, so based on the stage of the company, there is a slightly different form of the deal, but it includes the incubator providing resources to the companies in exchange for equity in the company. That amount of equity changes from company to company, though, they’re pretty set templates for how much they expect to take there. And the contributions, as you could imagine, change from company to company. Everybody gets an executive in residence assigned to them where…it’s kind of a mentor role helping you through the tough decisions and ensuring that you’re moving correctly.
Tom Smith: So you’re not going to disclose the details of that deal?
Kevin Noertker: I can’t. Sorry about that.
Tom Smith: That’s okay. What does the next three, five years look for you guys and do you even think beyond that? Is it realistic to think beyond that?
Kevin Noertker: Yes, so I was having this conversation just about an hour and a half ago with my cofounders. We have financial models that project out to 2028. But how realistic is it for a company that’s less than two years old to project out you know 12 years or 10 years? So we have to have an eye for the future, right? That’s why you’re entrepreneur because you’re imagining what the future could be. And we have to be optimistic and realistic about what those futures look like. However, there is immense uncertainty in that future. So, as you go to the nearer years, right, we’ll say the three year time frame, it’s a very clear path for us because by the end of 2020, we’ll be getting certification on our first product. So the path to achieve that milestone for the company is well set through our first flight next year, the production engineering of our system, and then certification of that system. That is in the three year horizon. Contingent on the success of that activity, which we believe we’ll be very successful at it, that opens up a business opportunity for the operation of a profitable business in that regard but also gives us a foundation to then go and pursue newbuild airplanes as we talked about. Though we are pursuing retrofits initially, airplanes like the tailwind are pretty exciting, and we do see that in the 5 to 10 years out. It will make sense for companies and operators–those are airlines– to consider newbuild aircraft rather than the retrofit aircraft. And so we’ll be applying resources into that either inhouse development or partnerships with airframers.
Tom Smith: The competition, we touched on it before, but I’m just sitting here wondering the Boeings of the world, the Airbuses of the world, they look at you guys and say, “Hey, we’re going to support you and help you,” or they look at you and say, “We’re going to crush you.”?
Kevin Noertker: Yes, so the large companies, there is an exciting announcement recently that Airbus, Siemens, and Rolls-Royce plan on demonstrating a electric or hybrid electric 150 passenger aircraft in the 2020 timeframe. Now, Airbus has already made moves to demonstrate a two seater aircraft, and then they began developing a four seater hybrid aircraft, electric, and canceled that project. And if you look at the big players like the Airbuses and Boeings, they don’t build small planes. They’re positioning themselves for the inevitable future where electrification or bringing hybrid electric emerges into those large aircraft, the 150 seat. I’m very excited for them to do that demo because when they’re demonstrating their first prototype in 2020, we’ll be achieving certification on our first product. It will be great marketing for us.
Tom Smith: Yeah, that’s true. I threw the big ones out. What about the Cessnas of the world or the Honda, right? Honda got in, the Honda jet not too long ago.
Kevin Noertker: Absolutely. So each of these companies we anticipate, and have talked to some of them, that they are interested and curious about the future of electrification, don’t necessarily have expertise in it and aren’t necessarily strategically aligned to go at it on their own. We have had conversations with OEM airframers who are looking to companies like Ampaire to electrify their aircraft.
Tom Smith: All right. Your residency here, can you even say how long that might be?
Kevin Noertker: At Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator? This incubator is unique in that it actually gives us quite a bit of time that they’ll be supporting us, so it’s a five-year agreement where…
Tom Smith: Long runway.
Kevin Noertker: Yeah, long runway here.
Tom Smith: Pun intended.
Kevin Noertker: That’s great. So we are happy that we have that amount of time to be a portfolio company here at the incubator, and we’ll see if and when we outgrow the space. Certainly, we don’t anticipate and building our airplanes in the incubator itself or in the wonderful warehouse across the street, but we do anticipate having a presence here.
Tom Smith: Kevin, thank you so much. I appreciate your time and joining me here on iDriveSoCal. Again, the company is Ampaire, and they are commercial electric aircraft right here in Southern California in Los Angeles working out of…they’re a portfolio company of the LA Cleantech Incubator. So thanks again to my guest Kevin Noertker of Ampaire for joining me today. You can follow Ampaire at @ampaireinc on Twitter. For iDriveSoCal, I’m Tom Smith. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.