- Posted by Szerkeszto
- On May 8, 2017
- 0 Comments
- aircraft, automotive, aviation, startup
by Eva Rez
I start with a personal statement: I love travelling but I am not a big fan of flying. I’m a literally very down-to-earth person — or to put it another way, I have turbulence phobia… Still, for some reason, I am very interested in all the magic around iron birds. I have visited the cockpit, tried my skills on a flight simulator (terrible results!!!), and chatted with pilots and people obsessed with aviation.
A few days ago I had the chance to listen to Andy Hutchison, a former Director of Boeing. He had not only been working on the 787 Dreamliner programme, but he is also a pilot. His great insights immediately made me think about how many startups I know from the aviation space. I have to admit that not too many. And it was already — besides the inspiring talk of Andy — a good reason for me to improve visibility around the future of flying objects.
The automotive analogy
The obvious analogy that you cannot avoid while discussing the presence and future of aviation is the superfast development of the automotive industry. And the ultimate question is: would you board a self-driving airplane? This might sound a bit silly as aircrafts are already more automated than cars. But probably most of us would not take such a risky ride yet because our trust somehow still sticks to the human factor involved. As Andy outlined, one-pilot planes can mean the first step, and fully-automated flying can take over air cargo next.
It is also exciting to experience how the automotive industry imitates the advanced solutions of the aviation industry when facing similar challenges. As Laszlo Kishonti, the founder and CEO of AImotive — our portfolio company developing a full-stack self-driving car software solution — pointed out earlier to us, “a current high-end car is packed with up to 150 ECUs that are each responsible for separate features including driver assistance (such as lane-keeping, park-assist and so on), whereas the auto-pilots of latest aircrafts are using significantly less but more integrated ECUs”. It is now easy to draw the conclusion that many automotive companies and startups are keen on solving integration and sensor fusion lately based on the lessons learnt from aviation.
I guess aircrafts are still beating automobiles though, when it comes to shocking figures. For instance, the 787 Dreamliner has approximately 1 million parts from 6,000 suppliers. And believe it or not, 3D printing is already around to ease the manufacturing process. However, SAFETY overrules everything! Thus you cannot just innovate anyhow. But if a newcomer really wants to get in the ring with the big players, seats are a very interesting area, as I Iearnt from Andy.
“Today’s seats are required to withstand a 16g dynamic force. A 16g seat is tested in a manner that simulates the loads that could be expected in an impact-survivable accident.” While this is the standard today — it was only 6g in the 1930s -, airlines would be more than happy to reduce related costs. In other words, it is a very lucrative space for any potential suppliers and innovators, as well as seatbelts. By the way, have you ever wondered where your airbag is hidden on an aircraft? Well, it is most probably in your seatbelt. The solution of AmSafe was a real breakthrough in the industry, and enabled airlines to fit more seats onto planes and apply the “nested seating” in first and business class.
Innovation in aviation
When I asked Andy about hypes in the aviation industry, he mentioned two major trends. Both are related to the weight of the aircrafts, and ultimately to energy efficiency. One area where innovation is crucial is materials. Boeing does partner up with universities, and their cooperation mainly focuses on R&D related to aviation composites. While this seems quite a broad topic, there are more specific issues which have to be solved. One example is making the airplanes lightning resistant. Composites did not work well here, so it was necessary to develop a special foil for the wings, which then protects the vehicle and its passengers from the danger very likely to happen.
The other challenge that engineers are diligently working on is how to make engines more efficient. If engines could cope with higher temperature, they would burn less fuel. And lower fuel consumption results in — besides being more environment friendly — longer distances in the end. Currently, the longest flight is a 9,031-mile trip from Doha to Auckland (New Zealand), which is already not too bad. But could be improved even further.
I have also come across interesting ideas which are about to disrupt the traditional air travel infrastructure. One of them is the concept of “endless runway”. The project is led by the Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR) with partners in The Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and Poland. The scientists aim to achieve smaller airports and less emission with building circular runways, even if it proves to be more costly than the current layouts and will probably not become a reality before 2050.
“This runway is a circle that has no limitations on where to take-off or land on this circle. This makes it possible to fly in from or out to any direction. The size of the circle is pretty large, its diameter is 3.5 kilometres. Total length of the runway therefore is 10 km. This means that passengers during take-off or landing will not feel like they are in a roller coaster, a maximum of 1.2g forces will be experienced, similar to a train on a curved track. A typical landing only requires a part of the runway with a limited curve.” /Source: International Airport Review/
So how startups can get a pilot license?
Aviation is not the easiest industry to conquer, especially, if you are a startup. The above presented innovations are very capital-intensive, so probably it is not the best idea to tackle these areas. You can do it “simply for passion” just like Jeff Bezos with his company, Blue Origin or Elon Musk with SpaceX (aerospace manufacturers and space transport service companies) but it is definitely an advantage if you make a living from your other successful ventures.
But there is still opportunity for enthusiasts who are about to enter this huge market. Andy highlighted what really matters to big corporates when they work with 3rd parties: cost, quality, performance and schedule. If a great team and their innovative idea score better on these 4 factors than competitors, incumbents are happy to collaborate with them. And not only collaborate but also invest in them. Boeing itself has launched its own VC fund called HorizonX but there are other initiatives to mention as well (e.g. Virtute Fortuna Aviation Fund, Xegasus Aviation Investments).
It is not surprising that on Crunchbase there are 3,878 results for fintech and only 926 results for aviation companies. On AngelList the figures are much closer (262 for fintech and 217 for aviation) but much lower at the same time. Here are a few examples what you can find among them but we can say that this space is still not extremely crowded. If you happen to know interesting companies, feel free to share them in a comment.
Zunum Aero: Not only electric cars are fancy nowadays but electric-powered aircrafts are on the horizon too. Boeing’s new VC fund has recently invested in the team of less than 10 who would like to present a whole fleet by 2020 already.
Flying Car: A Slovakia-based startup, “AeroMobil is launching a true flying car that can both drive on the road and hit the skies”. The company will start deliveries by 2020 for a price of USD 1.3–1.6 million per vehicle. “Flying car can transform into flight mode in less than 3 minutes. As a car, it has a top speed of 100 mph (160 kph) and can drive for 434 miles (700 km)”. AeroMobil has already raised USD 3.2 million in three rounds (which is not enough for more than two flying cars).
Aero Glass: The startup with Hungarian origins is developing Augmented Reality glasses for the aviation industry. The solution helps pilots visualize terrain, navigation, traffic, instrument, weather, and airspace information. You can watch their demo video to grasp how the technology actually works! The company has got seed funding in the amount of USD 390K.
AirMap: In the era of drones, it is also important to provide operators with a very precise navigation system. Therefore this solution is rather for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), and it helps them safely navigate by analysing data on the laws, traffic and obstacles in the sky around the world. The Californian company successfully closed three rounds and got a total of USD 43.6 million funding.
Stellar: Based on the company’s website it is the first cloud based marketplace for private aviation. Customers can search for charter options, book the aircraft from the operator, while pricing is also handled by the platform. The Californian startup has already raised more than USD 13 million in four rounds. There are many similar apps and sites including JetSmarter which is also backed by the well-known rapper, Jay-Z.
Aerin-X: The Hungary-based team is developing a cutting edge solution that revolutionizes the way skin inspection carried out for airplanes with the use of Augmented Reality. I met the team last year at a conference but have no updates on them ever since.
Want to learn more?
It would be great to hear and read more about innovation in aviation because it is a decisive part of our reality. Especially of those who love travelling or have to travel because of their work and/or life-style. If you would like to be up-to-date on the topic I would highly recommend Layovers with Paul and Alex. Their podcast on air travel and commercial aviation is very entertaining and informative. I also can’t wait to hear news from Hack Horizon, the world’s first TravelTech hackathon happening on a plane!
Thank you for flying with me and any contributions to the topic is more than welcomed!