The Silicon Valley thing? “That just ain’t aircraft”

Teal Group’s Richard L. Aboulafia looks at the hype versus the reality around new aircraft concepts.

New aircraft concepts! We’ve got new aircraft concepts! After decades of zero market entrants,…


Teal Group’s Richard L. Aboulafia looks at the hype versus the reality around new aircraft concepts.

New aircraft concepts! We’ve got new aircraft concepts! After decades of zero market entrants, there’s a sudden flood of new big ideas. A few wannabe aircraft companies are usually around, but concept drawings have proliferated over the past year or two. It’s hard to categorize them all; from flying cars to supersonic business jets (SSBJs) to air taxis. Some use battery power. Some go vertical. If Dr. Seuss drew air vehicles, he’d be perfect for these newcomers.

If Dr. Seuss drew air vehicles, he’d be perfect for these newcomers.

Specifically, Boom announced its 45-seat supersonic transport. Joby Aviation announced its S2 electric VTOL personal air vehicle (check out the number of rotors and props on this thing ). XTI announced something like that, but with fewer rotors. Spike said it would fly a scaled model of its S-512 SSBJ (originally announced in late 2013). Most spectacularly, last year, before it was tarred as a reactionary, employee-hostile pit of misogyny, Uber introduced its own technocopter under the Elevate program (nifty manifesto: here).

Airbus, not about to be eclipsed by those young whippersnappers, announced last year that it was working on three different urban air mobility concepts, including the CityAirbus air taxi. These 1-4 seat designs might be an over-reaction to the 500-seat A380 Blunderjet’s epic fail. Most recently, Boeing and JetBlue announced that they would invest in Zunum Aero, “The Tesla of Aircraft,” offering battery-driven regional propfan planes.

What’s going on? Not only are there an unusual number of new-start concept plane companies; they all seem kind of…tech-y. They have grand plans for “disruption,” for new “intra-urban travel modes,” and of course promising “a whole new way to fly” (my least favorite phrase).

I asked my old pal Joel Johnson, Teal’s Executive Director – International, and my wisest mentor, with 50+ years of government and industry experience, for his view.

“They’re from Silicon Valley,” he sagely opined over a glass of wine. “They don’t realize that Moore’s Law doesn’t travel outside Sunnyvale.”

Moore’s Law is the observation that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every 18-24 months. It has produced fast and cheap computers, the IT revolution, the Smart Phone, and software-driven toasters that are too sophisticated to merely make toast.

The aeronautical world, per Joel’s wise observation, is pretty much immune from Moore’s Law. We see about 1%, maybe 2%, per year in efficiency improvements. Every decade or so something “disruptive” (by aeronautical world standards) produces a modest step change (say, a 10% efficiency boost). This new product is instantly followed by imitators (think 787 and A350XWB, or GTF and Leap-1). Still, it’s my job to track aircraft programs; here are a few pointers to navigate this weird new maze of 1950s Popular Mechanics cover stories:

1. Engines come first. New technology aircraft are designed around an engine, not the other way around. Supersonic planes look cool and inspire the usual “21st Century Concorde” headlines, but turbine design has turned away from long-range supersonics. We haven’t had an engine that reconciled speed with efficient long-range cruise since the JT8D ended production a decade ago.

2. Same with batteries. Powering a helicopter requires a completely different level of battery power, endurance, and reliability than powering a car (a car can pull over to the side of the road). We’re a long way from there; it may take many decades. And these electrical plane people will not be the ones to invent new batteries. Elon Musk might play a role in battery development, but for now he’s on the fence with electric planes. Also, as the 787 showed, it’s easy to underestimate requirements for electrical architectures, even for secondary power.

3. Ask: “If this is such a great idea, why not prove it with existing technology?” Fuel-sipping piston helicopters could prove the intra-urban mobility concept, and they could be remotely piloted, or even fitted with autonomous systems. These would be tough to beat for costs. But they wouldn’t grab eyeballs the way a CFRP egg with 10 or 12 rotors would. Also, a cool idea and a coherent business plan are two different things. You need a business plan to be disruptive.

4. Don’t forget the whole point of hyping new technologies: to attract cash. A pop-up ad on the XTI homepage makes my point: “You can help bring the TriFan 600 to market by joining our ground-floor investment opportunities. XTI Aircraft currently has an [sic] Reg A+ equity crowdfunding campaign available for accredited and non-accredited investors and a Series B option for accredited investors.” Per Homer Simpson: “May I have some money now please?”

5. Consider investor and customer motivations. Airbus would like investors to see the company as a tech stock, so a Silicon Valley presence, and concept technoplanes, are useful. Boeing and JetBlue would love some techno-branding, and taking a modest stake in a battery plane company helps with eco-friendly greenwashing too. For FlexJet, an MoU to buy SSBJs is way cheaper than a series of full page ads in newspapers, but it gets more attention.

The real deal

We can also view these ambitious new ideas through the template of a very rare event: for the first time in many decades, this industry has just seen a new market entrant. Last year was Honda Aircraft’s first year of full production. They delivered 23 planes (for a total of ~30 so far). They started work on the HondaJet twenty years ago, and they’ve blown through at least a billion dollars. It’s a nifty jet, but its design echoes features from the ‘60s, and Cessna’s old-tech Citation M2 is competing against it just fine.

HondaJet is what a real life new market entrant looks like: a well-staffed cash-bleeding offshoot of a much larger and very rich company. It took decades to create something built in relatively small numbers with no disruptive effect on the market. That Silicon Valley thing with engineers in T-Shirts, ramen noodles, a foosball table and no business plan? That just ain’t aircraft.

There, I made it through this letter without mentioning Eclipse and DayJet. Oops. March Aircraft Binder updates include the World Aircraft Overview, 787, S-76, Bell OH-58D, the FalconJets, and both Challenger reports. Have a great month.

Yours, ‘til an OctoCopter brings spandex-jacketed visitors to my driveway,
Richard Aboulafia

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