Volume 01 | Issue 14 | September 08, 2020
Batteries, Balloons and Defense ISR

Welcome back to the Future of Aerospace.

The White House released a new Space Policy Directive-5 (SPD-5) regarding cybersecurity for space systems, as a senior administration official told reporters that cyber threats on U.S. space systems happen with “concerning regularity.” More on that here.

According to a tweet from FlightRadar24, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) conducted their first test flight for their re-certification program of the Boeing 737 MAX, along with officials from the FAA and Transport Canada onboard.

THIS WEEK: We provide some of the latest market developments around improvements in battery designs that could help usher in the future of fixed and vertical takeoff electric aircraft (Electrification and Sustainability), and a look at how the operational scope for High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) is developing from an industry and regulatory perspective (Connectivity).

We also take a look at some of the latest updates for future embedded enablement of artificial intelligence on military ISR systems (AI & Autonomy).

Thanks for reading.

—The Future of Aerospace Team
The Batteries Behind the Electric Revolution
Image: EmbraerX

It’s no secret
that improvements in battery characteristics will define the possible applications and time-to-market of both fixed- and VTOL electric aircraft.

Trainers (Pipistrel’s Velis Ectro, Bye Aerospace’s eFlyers) and some small retrofitted aircraft have been successfully demonstrated using today’s batteries, with around 250-270 Watt-hours per kilogram of specific energy, many industry leaders suggest an energy density around 350 or 400 Wh/kg is necessary for the industry to really emerge.

Will that energy density — with acceptable specific power and cycle life — be reached through improvements to lithium-ion batteries, or through a new type of cell?

Dr. Richard Wang, who founded Cuberg in 2015 to pursue research and commercialization of lithium metal batteries, told us the capability of lithium-ion batteries is plateauing, with power density no longer seeing a steady five percent annual improvement.
  • In June, an independent analysis of Cuberg’s lithium metal pouch cells conducted by the Idaho National Laboratory indicated a specific energy of 369 Wh/kg, specific power of 2,000 W/kg, and a 370-cycle lifespan, calculated as when the battery drops to 80 percent of its original capacity.

    Cuberg’s $10 million in VC funding includes Boeing HorizonX Ventures, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Energy as backers.

  • While that cycle life isn’t yet sufficient for use by high-utilization aircraft, Wang said his team expects within the year to achieve a cycle life of 500 — which is where potential customers tell him the product becomes very attractive — and exceed a cycle life of 1,000 within two to three years. Wang also expects the cells to meet all the requirements for aerospace-grade certification within the year, though the formal process will take longer than that.

  • Cuberg is actively working with a number of industry leaders in the electric VTOL and fixed-wing spaces as well as manufacturers of larger electric cargo delivery drones.

    “We’ve gone through sample qualification with a few of the most prominent ones … our cell is one of if not the only cell that has met the full suite of their performance wishes.”
There are a few other battery chemistries being researched as alternatives to Li-Ion that will allow electric vehicles to move beyond their plateauing capacity.
  • Oxis Energy and Texas Aircraft recently announced a partnership to electrify the light sport Colt S-LSA using the former’s lithium-sulfur (Li-S) batteries, expecting an energy density of 400 Wh/kg, but at the price of between 200-300 cycle life performance and greater pack volume.

  • Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has opined that 400 Wh/kg of energy density with high cycle life, produced in volume, is necessary for electric aviation applications — a benchmark he recently tweeted is “not far. Probably 3 to 4 years.”

    Wang, who interned at Tesla’s Cell Research Lab while earning his Ph.D. at Stanford University: “We have some strong suspicion that Tesla is working on silicon anode technology, and that is one potential way to get there, although the technology still needs some R&D and process breakthroughs to be commercialized. They have a well-publicized partnership with a renowned Canadian battery lab that is working on some lithium-metal approaches as well.”

  • The lithium-metal approach has two advantages, according to Cuberg’s founder. In addition to being fully compatibility with most manufacturing processes used for Li-Ion, which will make production at scale much easier than alternatives, Cuberg’s cells use a non-flammable proprietary electrolyte that significantly reduces the risk of an electric fire, as experienced by Eviation’s Alice prototype in January.
Cuberg isn’t the only startup pursuing commercialization of lithium-metal batteries. Quantumscape, a battery startup counting Volkswagen, Bill Gates and a number of venture capital firms among its investors, merged with Kensington Capital through a $3.3 billion SPAC deal this week to go public on the New York Stock Exchange. Quantumscape told the Financial Times it aims to produce enough batteries annually by 2028 for 910,000 electric vehicles.

Cuberg intends to compete in the lucrative EV market as well, but sees the emerging electric aviation space as an ideal stepping stone given the power characteristics these aircraft are looking for.

Read more from our interview with Richard Wang, founder of Cuberg.
Loon's Vision of Remote Connectivity Through AI-Powered Balloons in the Stratosphere
Image: Loon

Alphabet’s Loon is already providing
its High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) commercial internet services to Kenya, and the company’s continued expansion of its autonomous balloon network at 60,000 feet will depend on government-industry optimization of a new approach to managing vehicles operating in the stratosphere.

“We’re operating a fleet of floating cell towers,” said Zohaib Mian, head of systems engineering for Loon.

What is Loon’s HAPS?
  • A super pressure helium balloon connected to a payload that features solar panels, batteries, LTE and transponders to broadcast its position to air traffic controllers on initial entry into civilian airspace. The entire vehicle is about the size of a tennis court, according to Mian.

  • Using machine learning algorithms, Loon has trained their balloon payloads to autonomously navigate wind currents and discover optimal swaths of high-altitude airspace to operate within.

  • Through proof of concept demonstrations, Loon has shown a cluster of 20 balloons connected to a mobile ground network in a particular region can provide up to 4,000 km of coverage on the ground.

  • Since 2013, the company has completed over one million flight hours and in 2019 launched 250 individual HAPS balloons.

  • “Most of the systems are automated, 99 percent give or take are automated, so that leaves our flight engineers the advantage to focus on top level issues rather than try to manually control each vehicle,” Mian said.
Nick Kohli, head of operations for Loon, said that the experience in doing launches over the last few years has helped optimize their operational process: “A process that used to take us 20 people and hours and hours if not weeks, is something that we can now do repeatedly in 45 minutes to an hour with a crew of five in multiple wind conditions, which we couldn’t do before.”

Loon is not the only stratospheric user with hopes of expanding their high-altitude operations in the future, either:
  • There are currently more than 40 HAPS programs in development, and they’re also a member of the HAPS Alliance formed in February that includes AeroVironment, Airbus Defense and Space and Intelsat among others.

  • In an effort to manage deconfliction among autonomous balloons and pseudo satellites in the stratosphere, the FAA recently published its first upper E class airspace traffic management concept of operations. Loon believes HAPS operators will need such a system to safely expand in the future.

  • Leonard Bouygues, head of aviation strategy for Loon: “To support this federated ecosystem you need a service that is very analogous to what is used in ATM for discovery and synchronization service that allows all actors to have a common view of the airspace, and multiple platform service suppliers to provide the services in the airspace at the same time.”
Read more on Loon and how the FAA is approaching management of the upper E class airspace.
Autonomous ISR Assets Likely A Big Defense Growth Area
Image: Connect Tech Inc.

Autonomous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)
assets that employ edge computing capabilities look to be a significant growth area for defense aerospace companies.

"Business case-wise, what we're seeing, our biggest uptake is definitely in the ISR space, in terms of those verticals," said Patrick Dietrich, chief technology officer of Ontario-based Connect Tech Inc., speaking during the Sept. 2 Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems Institute (AUVSI) webinar, Advancements in Autonomy for DOD Robotics and Autonomous Systems.

"We have seen a lot of systems moving from traditional ISR techniques. Maybe it's a vehicle that's being remotely operated, and now it's autonomous," Dietrich added.
U.S. Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said recently that artificial intelligence-enabled drones that pump relevant ISR data immediately to shooters through machine-to-machine interfaces may one day be the leading edge of U.S. military force.

"If we're going to take a big airplane with people on it into harm's way in a future fight, we're going to have to explain why we couldn't do that mission differently," Roper said.

"One of the most important things they're going to do is produce data that we can use to get smarter about what that contact point of war looks like. I think that those leading edge assets, whether in the air, on the sea, or on the ground, will have to be quarterbacked by people in platforms that are standing back, ready to make the calls."

One of the top Air Force acquisition priorities is the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) for which the Air Force is requesting $3.3 billion over five years.

A key component of ABMS will be software-defined radios that use AI.

Read more on the U.S. Air Force's big plans for autonomy in ISR.
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