When You Wake Up Hungry – Fly to the Bakery!

Electric-Flight.eu reports on three Germans who made a bathtub fly – and used it to fetch pastries.  As the website reports, “The Real Life Guys” are two Darmstadt students and one DB train attendant who shook up the media last week. They connected a bathtub with an aluminum scaffolding and six 9.6 [kilowatt] motors (€1 065 or about $1,191[each]) from the model building sector to 42-Volt batteries and blew it up.”  “Blew it up” means lifting it skyward on the power of what look like six Hacker model airplane motors, capable of putting out 15 kilowatts (20.1 hp) each for 15 seconds.  The 9.6 kW (12.9 hp) output cited in the Electric-Flight article seems realistic for sustained output, and the €1,050 price on Hacker’s website seems to confirm that this is the motor used.

Six Hacker Motors elevate bathing to a new level

That such a device and the idea of actually hopping in and going for a dry run in the sky is daunting gives proof to one of the Guys’ slogans, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

After a disastrous first attempt with a quadcopter type of device, the lads partnered with Exabotix, a German drone manufacturer which normally makes multirotors capable of lifting payloads from 0.5 kilograms (1.1 pounds) to 5.0 kilograms (11 pounds).   Their expertise in keeping their camera platforms upright enabled the “Guys” to stabilize a bathtub that, as one friend jibes, will be great in the event of a water landing.

Tub, aluminum framing, six motors, controllers, and batteries raised the price to about €17,000, or $20,845.  Phillip Mickenbecker, one of the students, flies it in a short cross-country hop to visit the local bakery, easily passing over hedges and wetlands.

Exabotix reported, “At their latest idea, however, they reached their limits and needed some help.  After their first attempts with the aircraft were not quite successful, the boys contacted us and asked for support.

“At Exabotix we deal with future technologies, that’s our world.  Therefore, the Real Life Guys, after the integration and programming of our own control, could dare the first flight.  (Your editor guesses some tuning of proportional/integral/derivative control loops was involved.) Our flight hall is designed to test prototypes.  So we were gladly available for this project and also gladly supported the later flight for bread rolls.

We like the courage of the Real Life Guys and have been able to test our own abilities in a cool way. Let’s see how far we can get on!”

Like Peter Sripol with his rapid-fire mind and even quicker videos, the Real Life Guys seem to have boundless energy and great amounts of self-confidence.  At the same time, they know when to call in the professionals for advice.


AirSpaceX is NOT an Elon Musk Company

Airspace Experience Technologies, LLC (AirSpaceX) is a subsidiary of Detroit Aircraft Corporation (DAC), and as far as this editor knows, not related to Elon Musk’s SpaceX.  A little closer to earth, the planned low-altitude perambulations of its two creations reflect the growing interest in “sky taxis.”

A Holding Company Brought Down by the Great Depression

Jon Rimanelli, founder and CEO, sees Detroit Aircraft Corporation as an attempt to return the Motor City to its former glory days as a leader in aircraft development.  He notes that for a few brief years, DAC held controlling interests in the Ryan and Lockheed Aircraft companies, and created the only metal-clad airship in aeronautical history, The ZMC-2.  He explains, “Back in the ’20s, Detroit was the center of the universe for aviation. Detroit Aircraft Corporation was the largest aircraft holding company in the world. They owned the biggest brands,”  Its technology may have been underappreciated in its time, but the modern DAC is promoting a confluence of automotive technologies that could get Detroit flying again.

According to Wikipedia, “In its lifetime the ZMC-2 logged 752 flights and 2,265 hours of flight time.”

Rimanelli revealed a vision not unlike that of Airbus and its A3 subsidiary, or of Aurora Flight Sciences (recently acquired by Boeing), Volocopter, or eHang.  Appropriately, he made his TedX presentation during the Detroit International Auto Show, and advocated the benefits of his sky taxis while explaining that all the science-fiction trappings could be accomplished with existing technology pulled from today’s crop of automobiles.

Today’s Two Offerings

AirSpaceX shows two different approaches to VTOL sky taxis on its website.  MOBi 2025, revealed last year at Uber’s Elevate Summit, was originally shown as having four rotors and a four-seat passenger pod.  Displaying greater flexibility on the current website, the machine can have up to six rotors on its pivoting wing and offers a choice of pods for different missions.  The four shown along with the passenger module include Intelligence/Surveillance/Reconnaissance (ISR), research, medical evacuation (Med-Evac), and cargo modules.

MOBi 2025’s multiple cabin modules

Each mission module can be carted around on the ground on a four-wheel self-propelled unit, brought to a landing zone, and attached to a flight module.  AirSpaceX claims the ability to fly an optimum payload of four passengers and 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of cargo at a cruise speed of 150 mph for up to 62 miles.  Control can be fully autonomous or “pilot assisted.”  Is the plane assisting the pilot or the pilot assisting the plane?  As artificial intelligence becomes a bigger factor in our futures, such distinctions may become increasingly blurred?

MOBi One at the Detroit International Auto Show

MOBi One, unveiled at this year’s North American International Automobile Show in (fittingly) Detroit, has eight rotors – six on the wings and two – one each above and below a slot in the long fuselage.  The fuselage is sleeker than the pods under MOBi 2025, and the great power might account for the faster top speed of 250 mph.   It can handle two-to-four passengers and up to 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of cargo.  Operation can be either electrical VTOL, or conventional short takeoff and landing (e-STOL).

MOBi One can fly in either e-VTOL or e-STOL fashion

Detroit Aircraft Corp. has grand ambitions and a talented group backing Rimanelli.  Their craft are similar to others charged with the same mission, and that is to be expected.  The high-winged configuration would certainly allow great flexibility in handling a number of different payload modules and that utility may lead to its widespread use.  The company has expansive ideas about that.  Our goal is to deploy 2,500 aircraft at the nation’s 50 largest cities by 2026, targeting existing infrastructure at first,” says JP Yorro, Chief Commercial Officer at AirSpaceX.  “The MOBi development program will be capital intensive, but air Mobility as a Service could generate billions for the economy. We are considering a broad array of financing options, including potential fractional ownership interest and profit sharing models.”


George Bye is a Busy Electrical Entrepreneur

George Bye, with his namesake company, Bye Aerospace, is involved in projects ranging from solar-powered drones to 345 mph VTOL cross-country cruisers.

Following the Money

People are betting on the plausible success of George’s SunFlyer 2, built by subsidiary Aero Electric Aircraft Corp. (AEAC), and he’s received deposits on 105 of the two-seat training craft. Due for release in the next two years, one prototype nears test flights this year. As its capabilities are demonstrated, Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology might increase its initial reservation for 25 SunFlyers.  Think of the impact this will have on flight training schools when SunFlyers and Alpha Electros begin delivering new pilots.

George did a great job of extolling the virtues of electric aviation in an online IEEE Spectrum article, “Cheaper, Lighter, Quieter: The Electrification of Flight Is at Hand.”*  He notes that the airplane will be certified in the “standard-category, day-night visual flight rules” category, “with a target gross weight of less than 864 kg (1,900 lb.).”  The airplane will aim “for a climb rate of 430 meters (1,450 feet) per minute; for comparison, a Cessna 172 climbs at about 210 meters (700 feet) per minute.”

Complementing George’s writeup in the IEEE journal, Sport Pilot, a publication of Recreational Aviation Australia (RAAus) gave the SunFlyer 2 a feature article and the cover of its November 2017 issue.  This comes as Joshua Portlock of Aero.Electro is scheduled to be the first recipient of the electric trainer.

The larger SunFlyer 4 will offer four seats, and is under development with over a dozen reserved.


StratoAirNet is a modified Windward Performance DuckHawk (no longer in production, sadly), a high-performance 15-meter (49.2 feet) span sailplane recently completing successful ground tests for the SolAero solar cells on its wings.  These triple-junction cells have a maximum efficiency of 32 percent, which enables an output of up to 1,560 Watts per kilogram (709 Watts per pound).  On the ground, the cells produce one kilowatt, but at altitude, will probably generate up to 1.3 kilowatts, according to George.

StratoAirNet prototype soaks up some Colorado rays in successful ground tests

On the StratoAirNet test vehicle, they will power a modified Emrax 208 motor from Slovenia.  Weighing a little over 20 pounds, the liquid-cooled motor can produce 40 kilowatts (53.6 hp) ccontinuously, great for a quick climb to the airplane’s surveillance altitude.

George thinks the airfoils on StratoAirNet display an almost unbelievable artistry, part of the same artistry that allowed designer Greg Cole to produce the unique airfoils for the Perlan sailplane, which recently set a world altitude record of 52,172 feet over Patagonia.  Since the “atmospheric satellites” that will come from this prototype’s tests rely on advanced solar cell technology for part of the mission, George and his partners foresee great things from the project.

The integration of the advanced SolAero solar-cells on the StratoAirNet prototype launches the initial demonstration phase of an entirely new paradigm of highly efficient solar-electric UAVs”, said George Bye, CEO of Bye Aerospace. Bye said potential commercial mission applications for the StratoAirNet atmospheric satellite include “communications relay, internet service, mapping, search and rescue, firefighting command and control, anti-poaching monitoring, damage assessment, severe weather tracking, agriculture monitoring (“precision ag”), mineral source surveying, spill detection and infrastructure quality assessment”.

Silent Falcon

On a smaller scale, but no less challenging, Silent Falcon will combine drone technology with SolAero products to enable five-hour flights, boosting the little bird’s persistence.  The less-than-paper thin solar sheets are 50- to 140 µm (micrometers or microns) thick and weigh a mere 280 grams per square meter (.058 pounds per square foot).

Silent Falcon shows off its SolAero solar cells

Silent Falcon’s suite of electro-optical and broad range sensors enable surveillance and monitoring for a variety of civil and military applications.  This versatility should make Silent Falcon a growing presence in the sky.

TriFan XTI 600, a Long-Range VTOL

George, along with CEO Charlie Johnson, provides engineering consultancy to XTI Aircraft (eXtended Technology and Innovation).  A two-thirds-scale prototype will fly in the fall as a proof of concept demonstrator for a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft that will traverse up to 1,200 nautical miles (1,380 statute miles) instead of rooftop to rooftop hops for smaller commuter craft.

Three ducted fans, one buried in the fuselage, provide the vertical capabilities, while the two fans on the wings rotate to provide forward thrust shortly after liftoff.  Sliding doors conceal the fuselage rotor shortly after the airplane begins moving forward.  George says reducing the window in which the airplane uses all its thrust to gain altitude allows the hybrid craft to gain its maximum 29,000 foot cruising altitude in only 11 minutes.  With single-pilot instrument flight capabilities, the TriFan 600 can equal or beat airline door-to-door times without taxiing, long holds, or TSA checks.

George is responsible for helping choose the Honeywell HTS900 engine for use in XTI’s first prototype, a two-thirds piloted subscale of the TriFan 600 vertical takeoff airplane. Honeywell will also provide an additional engine for use in XTI’s Ground Propulsion Test System.  XTI credits George with a major improvement in propulsion technology for the airplane.  “Mr. Bye is responsible for the change from a traditional and much more expensive propulsion system to a modern, elegant, efficient and much less expensive hybrid-electric propulsion system for the TriFan 600.”

George Bye Will Get Santa Monica’s Morning off to a Bright Start

In a final note, “The Santa Monica Airport Association and the airport’s Museum of Flying will host a public event on Saturday, Jan. 20, featuring George Bye, CEO of Bye Aerospace, who will discuss the benefits of electric flight and the future of flight training.

“The museum will provide a special $5.00 admission from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Bye’s presentation will begin at 10 a.m.”

Since Santa Monica is facing the reduction in length of one runway, George’s quick-climbing SunFlyers will doubtless be welcome, and a few XTI 600s would be icing on the cake.

*This article appears in the September 2017 print issue as “Fly the Electric Skies.”


CES 2018 – Intel Inside and Then Some

Brian Krzanich, Intel’s CEO, took a ride in the Volocopter 2X, becoming the first human passenger on an autonomous flight of the vehicle.  The ride took place in a large enclosed space somewhere in Munich, Germany, on December 3, 2017.

An Historical Sidebar

It looks a little like Hanna Reitsch’s helicopter flight under the roof of the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin in 1938, a feat she repeated daily during the three-week International Automobile Exhibition.  She later test flew an early V-1 “Buzz Bomb,” her small size adaptable to the craft.  Volocopter’s 2X requires far fewer flying skills, CEO Florian Reuter claiming a five-year-old can control the 2X.

Not a Flying Car

Sean O’Kane, enthusiastically reporting on the 2X for The Verge, can’t refrain from calling it a “flying car,” an all-too-common error in the popular press.  Monday’s indoor flight came near the conclusion of Brian Krzanich’s keynote address to a packed house at Las Vegas’ Monte Carlo Park Theater, a 5,200-seat venue.  The audience also got to see the video of the CEO’s Berlin ride.

Krzanich must have superb concentration skills, putting out his hour-and-a-half message with dazzling lights and visuals all around him.  His first order of business was to assure the audience that Spectre and Meltdown security flaws are being dealt with, and that “average computer users’ should not notice major slowdowns or disruptions.  The Verge notes that other chip manufacturers face similar security issues.

Not to be alarmist, but a drone with Intel Inside is not exactly a device that follows an “average user” definition.  Perhaps for that reason, Volocopter installs triply redundant flight control units, a typical practice on electronically-controlled aircraft.  The 2X includes a “dissimilar backup flight control unit” for added peace of mind.

To further ensure reliability, nine independent battery packs supply power to two or the craft’s 18 brushless motors each.  If all goes awry, a centrally-mounted ballistic parachute will bring the X2 and its passengers down safely.

CES Attendees lapped up the glitz of Las Vegas and received a hearty helping of the near future.  We’ll all await our aerial taxi service, quite possibly with Intel Inside.

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Two Things That May Not Seem Related at First

Recent news that Penrith, Australia was the hottest place on earth was underlined by videos of melting highways.  Penrith, a suburb of Sydney, reached 47.3° C (117° F), enough to turn asphalt into a sticky mess and force drivers onto less gummy shoulders.

Although over 2,400 miles away, Perth, home to Joshua Portlock’s Electro.Aero flying service, is at roughly the same latitude, and experienced near-record heat this month.  Possibly, that accounts for the all-caps caution for prospective flyers: “WE RECOMMEND EARLY MORNING FLIGHTS IN SUMMER FOR THE SMOOTHEST CONDITIONS.”

Joshua’s company took delivery of a Pipistrel Alpha Electro, and flew it on January 2, a first in Australian aviation.  He and his team are offering two-hour instructional flights in the new aircraft for $220 AUD (about $172 USD).  This opportunity to take lessons in an electric airplane will include the benefits of quiet, smooth flight.  But heat brings on turbulence, and even with an electric motor not affected by temperature changes, reduces takeoff and climb performance.  Perth has experienced record highs recently in the 108° F range.  Your editor’s experience in Cessna 150’s at 90° temperatures would make the decision not to fly in even greater heat an easy one.

Electro.Aero’s Alpha Electro makes a low pass

The report from Electro.Aero suggests that all went well, though for Australia’s first certified electric flight.

“The aircraft flew two circuits in the traffic pattern at Jandakot Airport, a major general aviation and flying training airport in Perth. This marks the first time a certified electric aircraft has flown in Australia. The first flight went very smoothly, and the aircraft was back in the air soon afterwards to begin training the flying instructors who will soon be training new pilots on the aircraft.

Onlookers were surprised at just how quiet the aircraft was. ‘It really is the quietest light aircraft that any of us have ever seen’ said Electro.Aero Finance Director, Richard Charlton. ‘This is the start of the next revolution in general aviation. We are already fielding inquiries from airports located in major cities where noise complaints have become their number one concern.’”

Electro.Aero will expand their electric offerings when they take delivery of a SunFlyer 2, currently under development in Colorado, and later when they add the SunFlyer 4 to their fleet.  These low-wing aircraft, with solar cell augmentation to their battery power, will enhance Electro.Aero’s place as a trend-setter in green aviation.  The SunFlyer 2 received an enthusiastic writeup and a cover picture on the November, 2017 issue of Sport Pilot, the publication of Recreational Aviation Australia, down-under’s Experimental Aircraft Assocation.

Joshua has been busy in America, too, developing FlyKart with partner Rob Bulaga at Trek Aero.  Rob’s work includes personal air vehicles that offer vertical takeoff and landing capabilities while possibly carrying a Marine into battle.  One such example resides at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California.

Rob Beluga’s exoskeleton vehicle skimming along the runway. This craft is now in the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California

With Joshua’s energetic leadership and a product that will lure new pilots to Perth, Electro.Aero seems to be off to a good start.  Good luck to all involved.


Natural gas promoters explain that it burns much cleaner than other fossil fuels such as coal or gasoline.  What if we can turn it into a zero-pollution fuel, and get a few bonus products from it?

One big dream, capturing greenhouse gases and turning them into useful, non-polluting fuels or even materials, still drives researchers to find those answers.  We have reported on several approaches to turning atmospheric carbon into carbon fiber recently, but Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) is working on turning its main product, natural gas, into hydrogen, carbon fiber, and carbon nanotubes.

SoCal has partnered with the startup C4-MCP with the goal of offsetting the expense of making hydrogen by selling carbon fiber and carbon nanotubes that come incidentally from the production of the hydrogen.  Those material sales could lower the cost of hydrogen to $2 per kilogram, competitive with conventional gasoline and Diesel vehicles.

Yuri Freedman, SoCalGas’ senior director of market development, explains, “This technology takes methane, turns it into a zero-emission automotive fuel—hydrogen—then uses the carbon captured in the process to make the strongest possible materials to be used in high-tech manufacturing. Further advances in development of this technology will bring about a unique and potentially revolutionary combination of environmental, manufacturing, and economic benefits.”

Methane extraction has elicited some controversy, especially following a series of evacuations near Porter Canyon in Los Angeles.  A recent incident reported by the Los Angeles Times reflects the ongoing concern following not-forgotten major evacuations.

Despite presumably using best-known methods and practicing due diligence, SoCal Gas still experienced major leaks.   “Two years ago, the biggest methane gas leak in U.S. history happened at the Aliso Canyon facility, spurring the evacuation of thousands of people from surrounding neighborhoods. Many residents complained of nosebleeds, headaches and nausea.

“SoCalGas spent hundreds of millions of dollars to relocate residents and handle other costs related to the leak. Earlier this year, it agreed to pay $8.5 million to settle a lawsuit from the South Coast Air Quality Management District and had earlier committed $4 million to settle criminal charges from the district attorney.

“The company resumed gas injections at the controversial site this summer after an appeals court lifted a temporary ban on operations. Los Angeles County had sued the company to try to stop it from restarting those injections.

“Environmental and neighborhood activists like [Matt] Pakucko have continued to call for the facility to be permanently closed.”  Concerned citizens might applaud this, but industry will respond to the call for increased drilling because of demand for natural gas.

Certainly, efforts to clean up post-extraction natural gas and methane will not affect the extraction sites, fracking methods, or neighborhood responses to that extraction.  Unless drillers find improved ways of sealing the well sites, methane leaks will continue.  But turning the methane into carbon-neutral materials will possibly enhance its desirability as a fuel.

Part of the program will be overseen by researchers at West Virginia University, directed by Statler Chair Engineering Professor John Hu.  That group will develop the catalyst and process for converting natural gas to crystalline carbon and hydrogen.  Incentives exist to use the methane in natural gas for clean energy.

According to WVU, “West Virginia has abundant natural gas resources, but those resources can often be stranded both physically and economically. The geographic terrain of the state makes it difficult to build pipelines to extract the resource and process it at a centralized location. This lack of infrastructure affects access and price.

“In order to convert the natural gas resources into sustainable economic and industrial development in the state, WVU researchers are remaking manufacturing methods and developing advanced technologies such as modular production that are flexible, inexpensive and increase efficiency.”

The new catalyst and technique will be further developed and evaluated at both West Virginia University and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).

The combined teams, working with funding from the H2@Scale initiative led by the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Fuel Cell Technologies Office (FCTO).

Carbon fiber and carbon nanotubes (CNTs) derived from the process will help defray the cost of hydrogen extraction.  The global CNT market is expected to rise from 2016’s $3.5 billion to $8.7 billion by 2022, with annual growth rates of over 17 percent.

A recent discovery by Professor Hu promotes “base growth” carbon nanotube formation rather than “tip growth,” the current technology.  The process allows the catalyst to regenerate and promotes a highly pure and crystalline carbon product, according to WVU.  The process can produce exact diameter and length CNTs.  Research by Hu may lead to ways to decrease the need for crude oil by 20 percent.

Types of carbon nanotubes. Purity of natural gas used in producing such materials makes a better product.  Illustration: SME Blog

Reducing emissions at extraction and consumption points will be good for overall health and environmental concerns and if the combined forces of academia and industry can lead to cleaner processes and valuable products, be good for the economy.


China Updates, Increases Range for RX1E-A

China Global Television Network, or CGTN, reports on an updated version of an electric airplane that first took flight in 2015.  The original RX1E could fly for 45 minutes on its battery pack, limiting its utility.  The RX1E-A’s six lithium battery packs can keep the new machine in the air for up to two hours and achieve a maximum speed of 160 kilometers per hour (99.4 mph).  This type of performance makes it more suitable for training and cross-country flights.

Similar to a long-winged version of Pipistrel’s Alpha Electro Trainer, soon to be produced in China, the RX1E-A grosses out at 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds), suitable for most Light Sport Aircraft regulations.  It will be interesting to see if production plans match those for Pipistrel’s electric trainer, and if this leads to a healthy competition between the two companies.

Designed and built by the Liaoning General Aviation Academy (LGAA), the plane made its maiden flight from the Caihu airport in the city of Shenyang, Liaoning Province, on November 1, 2017.  Chen Zhanwei, the test pilot, expressed his satisfaction with the test flight.  “Flying this plane is like driving my Volkswagen sedan. It is so easy to control that even a beginner can handle the machine.”

RX1E-A landing after its successful flight

Zou Haining, deputy head of the Liaoning General Aviation Academy, shared the enthusiasm.  “We believe there’s a big demand for that type of electric plane, which can carry a bigger load on longer flights. It would transport both people and goods, and we will continue to improve the performance of electric planes.”

Zou said that the Academy will soon begin development of a four-seat electric craft, adding to what looks to be an expansive future for the group.  Since the two-seater requires only two pound sterling ($2.64) per hour for recharging, training can be provided at a cost level significantly lower than that for fossil-fuel powered aircraft.  A similarly thrifty four-seat machine would make cross-country touring an enjoyable and inexpensive possibility.

Batteries on each side of fuselage can be easily swapped out in ten minutes

With 128 orders reported for the original airplane, the improvements in the latest edition should bring even greater sales.  With two companies in China pointing toward the possible mass production of electric airplanes, future flight may indeed be cleaner and greener.


Earth, Air, Water and Jet Fire

“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

The SOLAR-JET project (Solar chemical reactor demonstration and Optimization for Long-term Availability of Renewable JET fuel. or SOLAR-JET) pulls carbon dioxide from the air, mixes it with water and exposes the mix to 1,500 degree (Centigrade) concentrated solar energy and makes a synthetic natural gas, with oxygen as the only exhaust.  Attempting to produce a useable fuel from CO2 has been an obsession for many over several decades.  Attempts to capture and store CO2 are expensive and usually only hide the carbon, ostensibly for eternity.

SOLAR-JET explains its objectives on its web site.  “The aim of the SOLAR-JET project is to demonstrate a carbon-neutral path for producing aviation fuel, compatible with current infrastructure, in an economically viable way.  Because the process hopes to pull CO2 from the atmosphere, the CO2 produced by its eventual combustion would be neutral – equal to the CO2 removed from the air to produce the fuel.

Researchers at Switzerland’s ETH are using a high-temperature solar reactor “fashioned from a helpful ceramic” to “split carbon dioxide and water.  They send the resulting compressed synthetic gas to chemists in Amsterdam, who use the Fisher-Tropsch process to convert the syngas into kerosene “that flies jumbo jets around the world.”

The Helpful Ceramic

The high-temperature solar reactor contains “a reticulated porous ceramic (RPC) structure made of ceria (CeO2) which facilitates molecule splitting.”  Ceria is an oxide of the rare earth cerium – the most abundant of such elements.   Post-doctoral researcher Philipp Furler explains, “Ceria is the state-of-the-art material.  It has the ability to release a certain amount of its oxygen and then in the reduced state it has the capability of splitting water and CO2.”

Solar reactor uses 1,500 degree C temperature, Ceria to split CO2 and H2O

Furler adds, “In the first step, at 1500°C, we release a fraction of the oxygen contained in the material, thereby a pure stream of oxygen leaves the reactor as a valuable by-product,”

So far, only 700 liters of the syngas has been shipped from Zurich to Shell Global Solutions in the Netherlands, where application of the Fischer-Tropsch process turns the material into kerosene.

Great Energy Required

Furler has an optimistic view of where this could go.  “Our long-term vision, and what we are following, is that we will be extracting the CO2 from the atmosphere. This way, we are able to close the carbon cycle and produce CO2-neutral fuels. The technology is expensive, but commercially available.”  His researchers hope to triple the efficiency of the process to help bring costs down.

Because the concentration of sunlight takes the reflected energy of 3,000 times the power of the sun to reach the 1,500 degrees C required to turn the CO2, water and air into a usable fuel precursor, costs may not be competitive for a while.

A schematic of the chemical processes that take place in the reactor

Again, Furler is optimistic.  “Oil is a limited resource; at some point you will run out.   What we propose is another route to the same chemical, using solar energy.”

The Sahara, where St. Exupery survived a forced landing and became inspired by the vast quiet to eventually write Wind, Sand and Stars and The Little Prince, could serve as a source for the sunlight needed to make the jet fuel for future flight.

Aldo Steinfeld, one of the ETH researchers says, “The long term goal is to reach a 15 percent efficiency with the solar-driven cyclic process.  20,000 liters [of] kerosene per day could then be produced in a solar tower system of one square kilometer.  The Sahara encompasses 8,600,000 square kilometers (3,320,000 square miles).

The results of the ETH team’s research is published in the November 18 edition of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal, Energy and Environmental Science.   Team members include Philipp Furler, Jonathan R. Scheffe, and Aldo Steinfeld.


Broadcast live on December 24, this demonstration of the eHang 184 is, interestingly, an English-language presentation, with a lot of English names floating about.

Someone named Mike shows off the Ehang 184 in this Christmas-related special.  His friend Miranda snugs herself into the compact passenger compartment, tries on the safety harnesses, and deplanes before committing aviation.  The video is a sales pitch for the drone manufacturer – actually more of a long wind-up before a pitch into the air.  Mike takes us through a tutorial on the craft, which seats one passenger and has eight propellers that are mounted on four arms (one-eight-four, or 184).

The rather ungainly entrance and exit of the petite young woman suggests possible improvements eHang’s designers might make in the otherwise swoopy-looking gull-wing doors.  They might also consider how to protect the unwary from the knee- and ankle-high 1.6 meter (5.25 feet) propellers.  One hopes the designers have incorporated a safety propeller stop system such as the one designed by Karl Käser at Kasaero in Germany.

The video is a nice once-over for the vehicle, several of which are being tested in Dubai for aerial taxi service.  On its home turf of Guangzhou, China, the commuter takes off with a pack of presents for the little kids in waiting, circles around and lands.  Alistair accepts his gift with proper gratitude.

Most interesting, the large research control center, looking a bit like a James Bond film set, oversees the operation of individual eHangs anywhere in the world, according to Derek Jung, one of the founders and chief marketing officer for the firm.  Somewhere in the background, we hear a very Bond-like lady’s voice making announcements in the large echoing space.  Since a young man with a laptop seems to be controlling the flight of the eHang, one wonders how the screen and auditory inputs will be controlled for multiple missions.

An ambitious set of goals for safety and short-range operations seems doable from this video.  One can quibble about details, but the fact that the company has sorted out the algorithms for control of the eight large propellers is an indicator that they’re doing something right.

One major issue, the location of the propellers, is not an issue with Volocopter’s 2X, also being tested in Dubai.  As these innovative designs show that they can deliver their promised performance, we’ll wait for their greater deployment in the world.

*Boxing Day is an English holiday, which some say was set aside for boxing presents for one’s servants.  This was an early form of regifting, apparently.


Another pair of heavy-duty partners, Ballard Power Systems of Canada, normally powering city buses; and Boeing, through its subsidiary Insitu, team to create and fly viable fuel cell systems for drones.  Insitu’s ScanEagle is already a world-beater for range and endurance, but it uses an internal-combustion engine (ICE), that although frugal, is not entirely green.

Insitu ScanEagle with large nose-mounted sensor suite

Green Car Congress reports, “ScanEagle is 1.55 meters (5.1 feet) in length, has a wingspan of 3.11 meters (10.2 feet) and [a] maximum takeoff weight of 22 kilograms (48.5 lbs). The UAV can fly at a maximum speed of 41.2 meters per second (80 knots), reach a ceiling of 5,944 meters (19,500 feet),”  and has flown over one million mission hours, making it a leader in multiple applications.

Ballard’s Protonex® fuel cell systems have been used for over a decade to power drones of varying sizes, but all with ranges and endurance equaling or exceeding most of their ICE cousins.

Improving the Breed

In a December 22 press release, Protonex announced improvements in manufacturing and applications of their newest technology.  “The next generation fuel cell propulsion system announced today delivers a number of important advances: increased power density, resulting from a new membrane electrode assembly (MEA) design; reduced cost, resulting from a combination of new MEA and one-step fuel cell stack sealing process; and extended lifetime. The increase in rated power, without any appreciable increase in size or weight, is a particularly significant development for UAV applications.”  The unit tested on Insitu’s ScanEagle is a 1.3-kilowatt system.

Simplification and size reduction give Protonex’ MEA stack size and weight advantages


A presentation by Paul Osenar, President of Protonex, highlights the advantages claimed by his company’s fuel cells over batteries and ICE’s.  He claims fuel cells have two-to-five times the energy density  of LiPO batteries.  They extend mission times and provide more data to the user, partly because they can provide on-board power for data acquisition, computing and communication requirements.  They offer greater than five times mean time between failure (MTBF) over ICE power systems.  This leads to lower operational costs and better platform reliability.

In applications requiring persistence and the ability to provide near-real-time data delivery, such performance will be necessary and appreciated.

Fighting Back Against Wildfires

Beyond the range and endurance enhancements, Insitu’s ScanEagle teams with WhatFire, a surveillance and data gathering system that promises to help control future wild and forest fires.  WhatFire, in turn, uses ArcGIS, a geographic information system provided by ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute).

Crew enjoys day of successful tests with ArcGIS, electro-optical and infrared systems

In October, the public saw a test of the combined drone and fire watch system at the Warm Springs, Oregon, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Test Range, a member of the Pan Pacific FAA UAS Test Site for commercial UAS testing.  Out of seven such test sites, it’s one of three in Oregon, including the Pendleton and Tillamook test areas.  Powered by an internal combustion powerplant, the ScanEagle was able to show off Insitu’s Mark 4 launcher and SkyHook recovery system.

On board ScanEagle, Insitu’s INEXA Solutions offers aerial reconnaissance for fighting wildfires, including a new High Accuracy Photogrammetry payload, and FireWhat’s geographic information system (GIS) customized for firefighters and hosted on Esri’s ArcGIS platform.  In current fire-fighting systems, “gaps” exist where fireline information can be 24-hours old.  ScanEagle’s real-time systems can “fly the gaps,” using electro-optical and infrared imaging for day and night capture.  This “previously unavailable data collection, analysis and delivery of decision-making information” can make a big difference in response times to critical situations.

Bringing ScanEagle back after a successful SkyHook retrieval

These abilities were demonstrated shortly after successful acceptance tests in the 49,000 acre Eagle Creek fire in Oregon’s Columbia Gorge.  Mark Bauman, Vice President and Co-General Manager of Insitu Commercial explained his feelings about the fire that burned within sight of Insitu’s Hood River, Oregon plant.  “Throughout the difficult Eagle Creek wildfire, our thoughts have been with our friends and neighbors impacted by this unfortunate event.  We stand prepared to assist local authorities with ongoing operations in any way we can, and we extend our gratitude to all of those working hard to contain the fire.”

Accurate location of spot fires and the ability to see through smoke, haze and the dark of night enhanced ScanEagle and Esri’s Geographic Information System ArcGIS software’s usefulness to those on the ground.  These capabilities have broader market potential.

In a market that could grow from the quarter-million commercially-deployed drones now to 2.5 million by 2021, the abilities shown in firefighting will be available for agriculture, construction, environmental management, urban and rural surveying, mining, emergency response and law enforcement.