While Beta Technologies works to build out its network of charging stations throughout the U.S., the company’s all-electric Alia 250 eVTOL aircraft has been flying across the country for a series of demonstration flights.
Most recently, the eVTOL developer sent its Alia aircraft on a five-day journey across the eastern half of the U.S. The 876-mile (762 nm) mission began on November 30 in Plattsburgh, New York—about 20 miles northwest of the company’s headquarters in Burlington, Vermont—and ended in Louisville, Kentucky.
Over the course of five days, with test pilots Lochie Ferrier and Nick Warren at the helm, the Alia made seven stops in four states. Ferrier told FutureFlight that the trip went “better than we could have ever hoped,” with no hiccups to report other than a one-day weather delay for snow in New York. “We’re continuing to make improvements to our aircraft and to our charging network that enables these cross-country trips to go really well.”
The aircraft arrived at its final destination, UPS’ Worldport at Louisville International Airport in Kentucky, on December 3. At the major UPS logistics hub, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg had a chance to check out the aircraft and speak with Beta CEO Kyle Clark. The Department of Transportation oversees the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an agency whose approval will be necessary for Beta to begin selling its aircraft to customers like UPS.
In April 2021, UPS became Beta’s third customer when it agreed to purchase up to 150 of the company’s Alia 250 aircraft. The express package delivery giant plans to use the eVTOL aircraft to transport smaller shipments that would otherwise require ground vehicles or other small feeder aircraft to reach their destinations. (Beta also holds orders from Blade Urban Air Mobility and United Therapeutics, which plans to use the aircraft to transport human organs for transplant.)
Initially designed for the transportation of medical products and cargo, Beta’s Alia 250 aircraft can carry 1,400 pounds of payload to a distance of up to 250 nm on a single charge, hence the aircraft’s name. However, while the company sees the Alia primarily serving cargo and logistics operations, it also plans to offer another configuration that can carry up to five passengers (plus one pilot). Beta says its eVTOL can fully recharge in just 50 minutes.
During the trip to Louisville, Beta said the cost to recharge the Alia aircraft came out to about $0.13 per mile, whereas the Cessna Caravan chase plane that accompanied the Alia cost $1.78 per mile to refuel.
The recent cross-country trek was the second such journey for Beta’s Alia, which in late May completed a multistage trip from upstate New York to Bentonville, Arkansas and back, logging more than 2,400 nm. For that trip, Ferrier and fellow test pilot Camron Guthrie took turns piloting the aircraft and made stops in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri to recharge its batteries using Beta’s own multimodal charging stations.
A Beta spokeswoman told FutureFlight that the company has so far built two prototype aircraft which both conduct routine test flights. Serial number one, the aircraft that completed both cross-country trips this year, is configured for conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) “so we can gather data on in-flight performance, since that’s where the aircraft will be spending more than 95 percent of its time in operations,” the spokeswoman said. The other aircraft, serial number two, is configured for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), and it completed its first successful hover flight earlier this year.
“It's pretty awesome to see an electric airplane out there on the road, flying in the real world in real airspace and real weather, flying real distances at relevant speeds, and doing that repeatedly,” Ferrier told FutureFlight. “I think is is very exciting for us as a company and then for electric aviation broadly to see that happening.”
Building Beta’s Charging Infrastructure
While Beta is hard at work getting its eVTOL aircraft certified by the FAA, the company is also in the process of building out a widespread network of charging stations that can be used not only to charge its own Alia aircraft, but also to charge other types of electric aircraft and even ground vehicles. In addition to the Alia program and network of charging stations, Beta is also working with CAE to develop pilot and maintenance technician training programs for its eVTOL aircraft.
“We think of ourselves as an aircraft ecosystem company,” Nathan Ward, who leads Beta's work on its charging network, said during a webinar hosted by the National Air Transportation Association in late October. “We don't envision ourselves and have no plans to be either a Part 135 or Part 121 [operator] or FBO. So we're really building an electric aircraft and then the supporting systems around it to make this new fuel source, electricity, work in a very well established industry in aviation.”
Beta plans to have a network of about 150 charging stations up and running by 2025, the same year that the company plans to have its aircraft certified and ready to begin commercial operations. So far the company has nine publicly accessible electric chargers online in four states, and at least 55 additional sites are currently in the process of permitting and construction.
Beta’s charging stations will utilize a 350 kW DC fast charger, which is “not a whole lot different than something you'd see at a highway rest stop or maybe at a gas station today,” Ward explained. “It’s as powerful as they come for this type of charger … We're talking about charging a battery that's the size of three [Tesla] Model S's worth of battery in under an hour.”
Each charging station can support up to two chargers and connect to the aircraft via combined charging system (CCS) standard plugs with 50-foot-long cables. The chargers are conveniently located at the edge of the ramp for easy access. A rectifier unit takes AC power from the electrical grid and converts it to DC current. At some locations, electric road vehicles located groundside of the airport can also use the same charging stations as the electric aircraft, with the airside and groundside segments of the charger separated by the airport’s fence.
“Bringing a electric vehicle charger, especially a high-powered one, inside the security fence has its nuances, and we've been working through that,” Ward said. “We're at about 50 airports right now in some form of development with a bunch more coming,” he said, adding that Beta is actively initiating conversations “with as many airport partners as possible” to implement its vast network of charging infrastructure.
To install one of these new chargers, airports and FBOs are required to first complete an FAA 7460, “Notice of Proposed Construction or Alteration” application, as well as a Section 163 airport layout plan review. Ward said this process can take anywhere from two to nine months, depending on the location. “Every airport district office who reviews 7460s is a little different,” he said. “We speak to the FAA regularly so they know what we're doing and that's the made the process more efficient.”
Once those plans are in place, it can take anywhere from 20 to 44 weeks to get the equipment required to build the charging stations, Ward explained, citing ongoing supply chain issues and the increasing demand for electronic equipment. “The long pole in the tent for sure is the long-lead equipment, and that's really the transformer and the switch gear,” Ward said. “If you're looking at being in a position to be ready when these next aircraft come into the marketplace, realistically speaking, you need to have solid plans in place.”