VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft are growing rapidly from prototypes to commercial vehicles. But although most prioritize electric batteries, there are a number of companies that are developing hydrogen-motorized VTOL, including Skai from the American company Alaka’i
I recently spoke with Brian Morrison, co-founder, president, and CTO, to learn more.
Why does Skai use hydrogen, not lithium ion batteries?
In the first place, I was curious why hydrogen instead of lithium ion batteries. Morrison said:
“Lithium-ion batteries scare me.” He recalled the 1987 Boeing 787 lithium-ion battery fires. Boeing had delivered the plane to the airline just 18 days earlier. In that time, the plane registered 22 flight cycles without incident.
Another 787 made an emergency landing in Japan after pilots received a battery malfunction warning five days later.
These two events led the FAA to ground the entire 787 fleet. It was the first time the agency had placed an order of this type for a line of aircraft since 1979.
As Morrison explained:
The more power you try to draw from the battery, the hotter it gets. You want to recharge it as quickly as possible. But the more power you try to put into the battery as quickly as possible, the more it heats up. At some point, it becomes dangerous, and managing it in hundreds or thousands of battery packs will be a real challenge.
Morrison has an extensive history in aviation, including the development of black box recorders. He remembered:
I started considering eVTOLs as a serious possibility in 2012. I did literally hundreds of simulations to convince myself that the eVTOL battery was viable. And I ended up convincing myself that it wasn’t.
Every time you double the amount of battery on board, the weight increases so much that we will only get another two, three or four minutes of flight.
A solitary approach to aeronautical innovation
Morrison refocused on hydrogen fuel cells, pointing to a family history. His father was a senior program manager in the Apollo program – the Apollo mission used fuel cells to generate electricity. He filed the first patents in 2013 and notes:
We are taking a solitary but fundamentally different approach because it is safer and better for the environment and safer and better for passengers.
How receptive is the FFA to a hydrogen VTOL like the Skai?
Morrisonn has a long history of participating in flight certifications for Boeing and Airbus.
With previous FAA meetings, three or four FAA representatives may show up. In our first eight or nine meetings with the FAA about this program, we have never had fewer than 25 FAA representatives. They have given me extraordinary support. It is a new technology for them, so they are excited about it.
According to Morrison, the biggest challenge from the FAA’s point of view was the uniqueness of the vehicle:
It is not a Part 23 fixed wing aircraft. It is not a Part 27 helicopter, it is a combination of requirements between those two, plus it is an electric aircraft. In addition, they are hydrogen fuel cells. So it took us almost a year and a half to work our way through a cumulative list of requirements that everyone could agree on.
VTOL production is a highly competitive space
How does the Skai team compare to other founders in the space? Morrison said:
In the beginning, Uber had meetings where they tried to bring the entire eVTOL community together. And at these meetings, there will be a lot of hedge fund people who have never certified an aircraft before.
They were saying some of the most ridiculous things. “Oh well, we’ll tell the FAA, that’s how it’s going to be. We do not need this or that requirements. “
The degree of rigor required surprises them. There’s not just a hand movement that says, “Yeah, it looks good enough, good enough, and take off.” Long-haul flight with easy refueling infrastructure
The Skai is designed to withstand a four hour flight without the need for refueling. It can land almost anywhere as it does not have the refueling infrastructure limitations of traditional eVTOLs.
As Morrison states:
A lot of eVTOL people are panicking vertiports and building supplies to charge your batteries.
But we don’t need it. We can fly, drop passengers, pick up new passengers, fly to another place, do it six, eight or ten times up to the 400 mile range. And then we can move to a mobile refueling truck or a fixed ground tanker location. Refueling the vehicle takes between six and eight minutes.
He also noted that no one wants to talk about the emissions behind the power produced by megawatt eVTOL battery chargers.
Skai has signed an agreement with Orbital Marine in the UK to take the tidal energy of the River Thames and turn it into green hydrogen. Definitely a powerful collaboration.
What is the market for a hydrogen VTOL like Skai?
So who is going to fly in a Skai?
First responders and the U.S. National Guard are a crucial audience for Skai, especially when they are otherwise unable to access jet fuel due to flooding.
Additionally, the National Guard can operate under military authority, exempting them from FAA certification requirements. This makes it possible to build and deliver vehicles to the National Guard much earlier.
Cardinal missions are also a focus. In these, VTOLs are operated at offshore locations before FAA certification carries supplies, providing an opportunity to gain experience with a vehicle.
But daily aviation is also in the works. Skai has a letter of intent with a Los Angeles company to purchase 40 vehicles to start and an option of up to 1,320 vehicles for traditional people on the move.
Of course, the challenge is to move from the idea to the final product.
The economy of scale
One of the biggest problems in aviation has been the inability to scale. As Morrison explained: “They see industry-wide mass production as producing 900 aircraft a year. That is not mass production. “
Alaka’i’s goal from day one has been to design a vehicle to automotive standards. Therefore, an automotive-style production line makes scaling easy. According to Morrison:
It’s not that different from a Tesla when you think about it. Skai has electric motors and a carbon fiber frame. We have rotors instead of tires. And we have an avionics electronics panel instead of a standalone one.
If you ask me, the cheaper production costs make it possible to achieve mass production. A cheaper plane also means more affordable flights. So while Skai won’t be the first in the sky, it does offer a green path to the future of aviation. And that has never been more critical than now.