Hello, and welcome to the Future of FLYING newsletter, our weekly look at the biggest stories in emerging aviation technology. From low-altitude drones to high-flying rockets at the edge of the atmosphere, we’ll take you on a tour of the modern flying world to help you make sense of it all.
Now for this week’s top story:
Blue Origin Appoints Amazon’s Dave Limp as New CEO
What happened? As rivals SpaceX and Virgin Galactic dominate the commercial spaceflight sector, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has been grounded. Its pace of progress has slowed from a run to a walk to a limp. But perhaps the best way to correct a limp is with a Limp—Dave Limp, senior vice president of Amazon devices and services, to be specific.
Tumultuous tenure: Bezos hired Limp as CEO in part because of his “sense of urgency,” which hints at the billionaire businessman’s aims. Under current chief executive Bob Smith, Blue Origin completed the highly publicized maiden voyage of its New Shepard spaceship, ferrying Bezos and Star Trek icon William Shatner to the edge of the atmosphere.
Since then, the company has stalled. It made a few more commercial flights before a September 2022 crash prompted the FAA to bring down the hammer, grounding New Shepard indefinitely. Smith has also missed out on lucrative NASA and DOD contracts, struggled to launch the New Glenn super-heavy rocket, and faced accusations of a toxic workplace.
Changing of the guard: Bezos is probably hoping Limp is the catalyst Blue Origin needs to right the ship, both figuratively and literally. At Amazon, he was involved with Project Kuiper, a planned competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, and led ambitious projects such as Alexa, Echo, and FireTV. He also held executive positions with a pair of now-defunct technology firms.
Limp is not an aerospace expert by any means. But Bezos clearly trusts his ability to turn ideas into reality (it’s an open secret that Alexa and Echo were pet projects of his), and do it quickly. He’s certainly an upgrade over Smith, at least according to current employees, one of whom gave the less-than-glowing assessment, “Anything is better than Bob.”
Quick quote: “I’ve worked closely with [Limp] for many years. He is the right leader at the right time for Blue. Dave is a proven innovator with a customer-first mindset and extensive experience leading and scaling large, complex organizations. Dave has an outstanding sense of urgency, brings energy to everything, and helps teams move very fast,” Bezos wrote in a note to Blue Origin employees obtained by CNBC.
My take: When this news came across my radar, one thing in particular caught my attention: Bezos’ repeated emphasis on speed.
Reading too deeply into the public comments of a CEO is a dangerous game, but it’s easy to see why Bezos might prioritize quickness. Since New Shepard was grounded, SpaceX has launched thousands of satellites and ferried astronauts to and from the International Space Station with NASA. Virgin Galactic has now completed space tourism trips in back-to-back-to-back months. United Launch Alliance has made a handful of launches, too.
All of these competitors have leapfrogged Blue Origin—at least for now. Limp’s likely prerogative as new boss will be getting one of the company’s programs (New Shepard, New Glenn, the Blue Moon lander, or the Orbital Reef space station) into orbit quickly. New Shepard, for which the FAA just closed its mishap investigation, seems to be a likely candidate.
In Other News…
Boosters Delivered to Kennedy Space Center for Artemis II Mission
What happened? About one year from now, NASA will send four astronauts around the moon and back. Before then, though, it needs to build the spacecraft that will carry them. That process appears set to begin soon, after contractor Northrop Grumman delivered 10 booster motor segments to Kennedy Space Station
Back to the moon: Artemis III, tentatively planned for 2025, would mark humanity’s return to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 more than half a century ago. Before that, Artemis II will serve as a litmus test—if it succeeds, the agency will move to the next step. The mission will be flown with the Space Launch System (SLS) super-heavy lift rocket and the Orion spacecraft.
Northrop provided segments for the SLS’s twin solid rocket boosters, which will generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust and help Orion reach 24,500 mph on its way to the moon. Now, the parts are being evaluated and are expected to be stacked in February. NASA also added four RS-25 engines to the rocket’s core stage last week. But concerns the project will fall behind schedule persist.
VI&E Solutions, Ace VTOL Look to Add 700 Vertiports in Oceania
What happened? As more electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft designs hit the market, they’ll need a place to land. Enter Volatus Infrastructure and Energy Solutions (VI&E): The vertiport company partnered with eVTOL manufacturer Ace VTOL to build a network of 700 vertiports in Australia, New Zealand, and other countries in the region.
Global dominance? The vertiport industry will rely on the development of another industry, eVTOL aircraft, for scale. But when those wacky-looking aircraft finally hit the skies, VI&E is in position to capitalize. The company is planning four U.S. vertiport projects for 2024 and will look to add more through partnerships with regional aviation real estate developers.
Of greater consequence, perhaps, are the company’s plans beyond the U.S. It has agreements with eVTOL manufacturers, infrastructure developers, and regulatory authorities in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and more. Already, that gives it a global footprint, with which the likes of Ferrovial Vertiports, Groupe ADP, and other rivals will need to compete.
And a Few More Headlines:
- NATO is set to adopt the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s SAPIENT protocol as a standard for counter-uncrewed aerial systems (C-UAS).
- VoltAero made what it says is the first flight of an electric aircraft running on 100 percent sustainable fuel…made from wine waste.
- In another milestone flight, Beta Technologies’ electric conventional takeoff and landing (eCTOL) aircraft crossed the border from New York to Montreal.
- The FAA announced a $300 million allocation for net-zero goal projects, such as sustainable aviation fuels infrastructure.
- The agency also proposed a rule to limit debris from commercial space vehicles.
[Courtesy: Horizon Aircraft]
Air taxi manufacturers Joby Aviation, Archer Aviation, Lilium, and EHang share one core tenet: They will only build 100 percent electric aircraft. Horizon Aircraft raises an eyebrow in response.
Rather than go full-electric, the Canadian company built a hybrid eVTOL which relies on a gas-powered range extender that charges its batteries during flight. Like the firms above, Horizon plans to use it for regional air taxi routes, as well as for medical evacuation, critical supply delivery, and commercial cargo services.
The company’s aircraft may not achieve the same emissions reductions as its rivals. But the Cavorite X7, a newly announced model that will replace its flagship Cavorite X5 (pictured above), is expected to have a greater range, speed, and useful load than all of them. Plus, with seven seats, it projects as one of the highest occupancy eVTOL designs out there. Keep an eye on this one.
On the Horizon…
No one likes a government shutdown. But the one currently looming could be a real doozy for the FAA. That’s because Saturday marks the deadline for FAA reauthorization, and a funding bill has yet to pass both houses of Congress. In short, this could be a disaster.
Commercial and passenger airlines will still fly. But air traffic controllers, Transportation Security Administration personnel, and FAA staff will work without pay. What’s more, training for ATC learning the ropes will be put on hold, potentially exacerbating an existing shortage. Airport infrastructure investments, FAA rulemaking, and facility security inspections will all go on pause.
For our purposes, the shutdown would also prevent the passage of key incentives for the drone and advanced air mobility (AAM) industries, which are included in the House FAA reauthorization bill. These include provisions such as a timeline for a final beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone law and permanent rules for AAM operations.
The Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certification (MOSAIC) proposal the FAA submitted in July is another piece of rulemaking that could be put on hold. Comments on that document will close October 23, less than a month from now (mark your calendars!). But the agency won’t be able to begin the process to address them through rulemaking until a shutdown ends.
Mark Your Calendars
Each week, I’ll be running through a list of upcoming industry events. DroneX 2023 wrapped up Wednesday in London, but here are a few conferences to keep an eye on:
- Airtaxi World Congress—October 2-5 in San Francisco
- UP.Summit—October 4-6 in Dallas
- FAI World Drone Racing Championship—October 6-9 near Seoul, South Korea
- Intergeo 2023—October 10-12 in Berlin
- Dronitaly—October 11-13 in Bologna, Italy
- World’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Conference—November 12-14 in Jerusalem
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