Why Are So Many Aviation Innovators Meeting in Arkansas?

Leaders from Airbus, Beta, Boeing, Blade, Joby, Wisk, and Volocopter are meeting in Bentonville for the annual UP.Summit.

Wisk Aero Air Taxi Demonstrator in Flight

In advance of the summit, Wisk Aero is showing off its Cora self-flying air taxi at KVBT. [File Photo: Courtesy Wisk Aero]

The venture capital fund UP.Partners kicked off a three-day invitation-only summit in Arkansas on Monday, including some of the biggest names in transportation innovation, including aviation.

The invitation-only UP.Summit in Bentonville is billed as an event for “innovative minds rethinking the future of transportation.” Organizers are aiming to accelerate progress toward “cleaner, faster, safer, and lower cost mobility solutions.”

“UP.Summit is unique in that it brings together innovators from across multiple industries to highlight and discuss the transformations happening in mobility, from ground, to air, to space,” said Wisk Aero CEO Gary Gysin on Monday in an email to FLYING. “We're excited to be part of this important conversation and to showcase what we're doing to bring accessible, all-electric, autonomous flight to everyone.”

In addition to Gysin, year’s summit has drawn high-profile executives from:

  • Airbus
  • Axiom Space
  • Beta Technologies
  • Blade
  • Boeing
  • Electra Aero
  • Gatik
  • Google Wing
  • Joby Aviation
  • OSM Maritime Group
  • Pipistrel
  • Whisper Aero
  • Virgin Galactic
  • Volocopter
  • ZeroAvia

Held near Walmart’s headquarters, the event was founded in 2017 by UP.Partners, Steuart Walton, Tom Walton, and Ross Perot, Jr.—rotating between Bentonville and Dallas, Texas.

The summit comes during a particularly dynamic time in mobility innovation, as multiple companies represented at the event are test flying entirely new electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. 

Last weekend, eVTOL developers Beta and Wisk arrived at Bentonville Municipal Airport—aka Thaden Field (KVBT)—to show off their innovative demonstrators.

Speakers at this week’s summit include businessman and pilot Jared Isaacman—who made history last year as commander of the first all-civilian crewed mission to orbit Earth. 

Arkansas has made it clear it is very interested in transportation innovation. Four months ago Arkansas Governor  Asa Hutchinson formed the Arkansas Council on Future Mobility to put the state on the cutting edge of transportation. “We want to lead in future mobility,” Hutchinson said last February.

The group plans to promote infrastructure investments and create key business partnerships to spur increased mobility innovation in the state. 

Ground and Air

In fact, Arkansas has already become a proving ground for a project by Walmart and summit attendee Gatik to develop a fleet of self-driving delivery trucks. Last May they announced plans to expand to Kansas. 

In the air, the emerging eVTOL industry aims to create environmentally friendly transportation for short flights over congested traffic, while producing relatively low noise levels. 

Currently, a few leading eVTOL companies are moving closer to FAA certification. Joby’s tilt-rotor eVTOL is expected to be certificated in time to enter service in 2024.

With that in mind, a likely topic of discussion during the summit undoubtedly will surround the FAA’s recent modification of its path to certification for eVTOLs. Former FAA administrators are expected to be in attendance.

All-electric airplanes will surely be a hot topic—such as Eviation’s Alice, which is expected to fly for the first time this summer.

Hydrogen-electric aviation pioneer Val Miftakhov, CEO at ZeroAvia, is slated to speak at the summit. 

ZeroAvia has made multiple headlines for the past few years as it develops ways to power existing airplane platforms using hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Space

In addition to the appearance of SpaceX commander Isaacman, meeting rooms in Bentonville will likely be buzzing about the continued expansion of commercial space ventures, including proposed industrial outposts in low Earth orbit (LEO). 

In orbit, low gravity can be exploited for valuable manufacturing of advanced industrial materials and new scientific discoveries made in near zero-G research.

Space is also where new technologies are being developed to service satellites 22,000 miles from Earth in geostationary (GEO) orbit.

Needless to say, there will be a lot to talk about and much to discover at this year’s UP.Summit. With so many innovators in attendance, it seems likely there will be more than one spark of inspiration that might end up changing the global mobility landscape.

Thom is a former senior editor for FLYING. Previously, his freelance reporting appeared in aviation industry magazines. Thom also spent three decades as a TV and digital journalist at CNN’s bureaus in Washington and Atlanta, eventually specializing in aviation. He has reported from air shows in Oshkosh, Farnborough and Paris. Follow Thom on Twitter @thompatterson.
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