SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. — One of the first packages in this country to cross state lines did so in 1913, when a farmer in southwest Iowa sent two dozen eggs 60 miles to a post office in Omaha. Most of them didn’t make it.
They are speaking of an airplane, a sleek electric craft that can whisk packages directly between warehouses without the need for runways or the hassle of highways. The plane offers a high-tech solution to a granular problem: a $5 million futuristic machine that can make that new shirt arrive a lot sooner. If it works, our package world, supercharged by the pandemic, would be greener and speedier. But problems ranging from scale to safety to Federal Aviation Administration certification mean plenty of eggs could also get broken along the way.
In a modern glass-and-rust structure at the Burlington airport, these hopes are taking shape. This is the headquarters of Beta Technologies, an aircraft start-up founded by Kyle Clark, a 41-year-old former Harvard University and minor league hockey player. He believes, he says, making a bold but unproven statement, that his tech can help commerce “be done at a scale that’s never been done before.”
Clark started Beta in 2017 to build electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, or eVTOLs — a Tesla of the skies that is cleaner, quieter and able to drop into tight spaces. Numerous in wing and rotor design, it is eVTOLs’ electric power that marks their virtue: It allows them to take off like a helicopter and glide like a jet.
Much eVTOL buzz centers on “air taxis” — the “Jetsons”-like premise of moving people around in cities via bulbous flying machines. But Beta, and to a lesser extent Germany-based Lilium, are among the few start-ups eyeing cargo. The idea is that it will be far easier to get craft certified by the FAA if their payload is not human, and much cheaper when the cost is spread to hundreds of package-shippers.
They argue eVTOLs could reduce road traffic and save time and emissions for the 36 million packages shipped daily.
“It’s not as sexy but it is more pragmatic,” Clark said. “And ultimately it’s going to do a lot more good than offering a short-term hop over traffic.” (Traditional manufacturers like Pipistrel and Boeing are in the cargo eVTOL space but moving more slowly.)
Clark has a colorful backstory. An engineering major, he paused Harvard to follow the barnstorming minor league circuit. (At 6-foot-6, he was what the hockey world genteelly calls an enforcer; he was signed by the Washington Capitals but never made the big club.) He returned to graduate and founded several companies while seeking backers for his burgeoning airplane designs and growing flying habit.
A second story in the Beta building — business staffers on one side, engineers on the other — is horseshoed around a hangar beneath, where multiple aircraft sit in various stages of tinkering. The hangar opens to the runway, allowing test flights over Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks beyond.
Its pièces de résistance are the models of the “Alia." The eVTOL is a curious, birdlike thing, which makes sense as it is modeled after the long-flight Arctic tern.
UPS has signed a letter of intent to buy 150 Alias, with the first 10 due to start arriving in 2024. The company hopes to attract others, from FedEx to the U.S. Postal Service. Amazon, meanwhile, is an investor. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Part of why these planes lend themselves to moving packages is that warehousing is increasingly spread out; Amazon, for instance, opened more than 200 new facilities during the pandemic. By bridging distances, the aircraft could — at least theoretically, experts say — allow customers to shop at more distant vendors and sellers to increase their customer base.
The Alia is currently approaching a 250-mile range. But battery weight — a major challenge — is generally improving by 5 to 8 percent each year. That could put the Alia near 400 miles by the time the FAA certifies it in a few years, possibly almost tripling the speed packages would travel and expanding the distances that are feasible.
The planes are expected to fly at 150 to 170 mph, which means point-to-point trips from warehouses 400 miles apart by air — say, from D.C. to Boston or Chicago to Kansas City — would take under three hours.
It takes more than seven hours to travel between those cities by road, without factoring in traffic or rest and refueling stops. A cargo-plane trip, meanwhile, requires trucks be driven to an airport, then waiting for the once- or twice-daily flight, as well as landing in a “hub” city for another truck ride.
“These aircraft solve the problem of what I like to call the middle mile,” said Cathy Roberson, who runs the Logistics Trends & Insights newsletter. “Which costs so much time and money.”
On the other hand, traditional vehicles can hold a lot more. A 26-foot box truck accommodates about four times that of the Alia.
There are other factors that could ground this approach. James O’Rourke, a University of Notre Dame professor and retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, says a network of safety coordinators will be needed.
“If you’re putting a few hundred additional aircraft in the skies to hop around to warehouses,” he said, "you need not only people who are extremely trained up there but also entire systems in place on the ground.” (Beta pays for any of its 350 employees who want flight training.)
eVTOLs also could face pushback from truckers. Kara Deniz, a Teamsters union spokeswoman, said in an email that she believed the union’s current collective bargaining agreements “address any proposed introduction of technology to ensure that our members’ work is protected.”
It’s certainly understandable why innovators want to improve delivery for the package, which is the object of our consumer desires but can also send us to the brink of tracking-number madness. Analysts are happy about the effort — a June report by the investment bank Cowen found that “eVTOLs look well suited for small package delivery." And other air-taxi firms are interested; Lilium vice chairman Alexander Asseily said in an email that cargo was “part of Lilium’s long term strategy."
High-profile investors are also optimistic. Beta raised $368 million in a funding round last year led by Fidelity that included Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund; its valuation exceeds $1 billion. (Its current main source of revenue is U.S. Air Force contracts; on Monday Beta also announced a contract with the Army supporting its flight-test program.) The firm has the backing of tech trailblazer Martine Rothblatt, founder of biotech-centric United Therapeutics and Sirius Satellite Radio. She sits on Beta’s board and is a close adviser to Clark.
(United, which focuses on artificial organs, aims to order an undisclosed number of aircraft to help it deliver organs directly to hospitals.)
Lisa Alexander, a veteran Los Angeles logistics consultant, said she sees the medical uses as strong. But she has reservations about broader applications, noting that “so much innovation is happening at fulfillment centers.By the time the FAA approves this, we’ll have figured out a lot of other solutions,” she said.
Clark says he sees a longer-term play. He even envisions his company moving to passengers, on the far-off day the FAA is comfortable with scores of these machines whisking people over cities.
But he says that, temperamentally, he is not in a rush.
“I was a very calm fighter when I played hockey,” Clark said. “The key element of being a quality enforcer is studying the psychology of the game and then picking just the right moment to go out and change the tide. I try to do that here too.”