Electric aerospace company Beta Technologies is working to build a network of chargers that could power its forthcoming small electric planes as well as ground-based electric vehicles.
The network is still in early stages, with just 10 on the ground and an additional few dozen in the permitting or construction stage.
Beta is also launching an app in an effort to get pilots and drivers to its chargers, the company shared with Protocol. The current version of the app is quite simple, providing just enough information for users to find a charger and start a session. But Chip Palombini, who heads product for the company, said the goal is to eventually build it out in response to customer need; while Beta’s planes are not yet in the hands of customers, a growing number of chargers are ready and waiting for both cars and eventually planes as well.
The Burlington, Vermont-headquartered company has two prototype planes that are still in the testing stage, and it plans to seek Federal Aviation Administration certification by 2024. The planes use “electric vertical takeoff and landing,” or eVTOL, technology, which removes the need for seeking out a landing strip, and have a range of up to nearly 290 miles. The company says its planes will be able to carry 1,400 pounds of cargo or six passengers depending on the configuration. UPS, the Air Force and United Therapeutics all have purchased agreements or established partnerships with Beta.
The process of actually getting electric planes to customers is an uncharted one, though, given that no electric aviation company has received FAA certification for commercial use. Heavy batteries take up valuable payload and limit the range of electric planes as well. A recent report from the International Council on Clean Transportation found that improvements in battery storage technology are still needed to make using electric planes “feasible,” especially given the requirement that commercial planes have reserve fuel.
In addition to building out its charging network, Beta is launching an app in an effort to get pilots and drivers to the chargers. Image: Beta
Nathan Ward, who leads Beta’s work on its charging network, said the company hopes its chargers will spread out so that they can allow electric planes to go anywhere they need. In the short term, however, the focus is on building out a network along the East Coast in locations where organizations that have made purchase agreements operate.
For most of those customers, the aircraft is a small part of their process of getting cargo or people from point A to point B. Beta’s ALIA-250 prototype is designed to replace the short-haul trucks that run on fossil fuels and currently dominate the cargo landscape. The company is based in Burlington, Vermont, and sees connecting it and smaller cities like it as a way to ease supply chain issues. Its charging network could be a key piece of making that vision a reality.
The ALIA-250, which was unveiled two years ago, has primarily taken short flights, though the company recently completed a 1,403-mile journey from its testing site in Plattsburgh, New York, to Bentonville, Arkansas, and back, relying primarily on its own 10-charger network. While the trip dealt with weather-related delays, it took 704 minutes of flying time to complete, over the course of a week.
In its all-electric-delivery vision of the future, Beta is betting that its plane-EV combo charger will appeal to customers who will have on-the-ground transportation waiting on the tarmac when planes arrive; as delivery vehicles are increasingly electric as well, the company assumes customers will want to simplify the charging process as much as possible. When UPS announced its purchase agreement for 10 of Beta’s planes last year, the logistics company added a reservation for charging stations as well.
Beta raised $375 million in series B funding earlier this year, adding to the $368 million series A round it announced last year. The funds come from heavy hitters, including Amazon. While there are still numerous hurdles for electric aviation to go mainstream, major shipping companies are clearly betting on a future where the technology plays at least some role in transporting goods.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated the Air Force has a purchase agreement with Beta rather than a partnership. This story was updated to reflect this difference on Sept. 8, 2022.