Residents in the Burlington area are well acquainted with the F-35 fighter jets housed at Burlington International Airport, but it’s their quieter neighbors that are making waves in the world of aviation.
They’re a pair of half-plane, half-helicopter aircraft developed by South Burlington-based Beta Technologies. They’re entirely electric, can travel up to 170 mph with a 250-mile range, and can take off and land vertically.
Now, UPS has agreed to buy 10 of those aircraft, with the option to buy 150 more. It’s a deal that augurs well for the viability of electric aircraft, and local jobs.
“We’re combining simple, elegant design and advanced technology to create a reliable aircraft with zero operational emissions that will revolutionize how cargo moves,” Kyle Clark, CEO and founder of Beta, said in a statement.
The Beta machines fall under the category of aircraft called eVTOL, which refers to electric aircraft that can make vertical takeoffs and landings.
That feature is particularly attractive in the delivery and transport industries. With vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, Beta’s aircraft don’t have to depend on airports, like the planes UPS now uses for express delivery. That cuts down on transit time, and makes delivery easier in rural areas.
The Beta aircraft fully recharge in about an hour, and can carry about 1,400 pounds of cargo. As part of the deal, UPS will get access to Beta’s charging stations.
“By utilizing vertical takeoffs and landings, we can turn relatively small spaces at existing UPS facilities into a micro air feeder network, without the noise or operating emissions of traditional aircraft,” Clark said.
Clark, an entrepreneur and pilot, founded Beta Technologies in 2017, generating excitement among both amateur aircraft admirers and industry experts.
The company soon partnered with United Therapeutics, a biotechnology company based in Maryland and North Carolina, to build an early proof-of-concept prototype.
That work earned Beta a $48 million contract with United Therapeutics to develop the two models, called Alia, that are currently in operation. United Therapeutics, a biotechnology company, sees the eVTOL aircraft as a way to efficiently deliver organs and tissues to hospitals.
Beta has a “similarly sized contract” with the U.S. Air Force, Clark said, to aid in cargo and logistics.
Though Beta leases a hangar at the airport in Plattsburgh, New York, the bulk of Beta’s growth seems poised to stay in Vermont.
Clark said the company recently completed a 14,000-square-foot expansion of Beta’s hangar at Burlington International, and the company recently had a permit approved for an even larger addition. He also expects to expand Beta’s charging station production facility, located in Williston.
Beta will look to add about 300 employees to its 200-strong workforce in the next few years, Clark said, in order to have the aircraft ready by 2024. That date is pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It’s not that challenging to build an aircraft to get it to fly,” Clark told VTDigger in 2018, “but to certify it and have it be an economically compelling product that people want to buy and operate … those are much more difficult goals.”
As companies like United Parcel Service invest in the technology, though, and production ramps up, the aircraft will only become more affordable to produce.
UPS has also begun investing in the electrification of its delivery fleet in partnership with Arrival, a software company based in London.
The cost of the agreement with Beta has not been disclosed, but it’s “the first meaningful customer order in the electric-vertical aerospace aircraft space, and it’s a real order, and that differentiates us very quickly,” Clark told CNBC earlier this week.
“These new aircraft will create operational efficiencies in our business, open possibilities for new services, and serve as a foundation for future solutions to reduce the emissions profile of our air and ground operation,” Juan Perez, chief information and engineering officer at UPS, said in a statement.
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