Vermont’s Beta Technologies is Growing Fast. But it Faces Challenges on its Path to Electric Flight
A company in South Burlington wants to revolutionize the future of flight. Beta Technologies is part of a fast-growing industry working to build electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
It’s growing at a rapid clip. Just five years after Beta was founded, it has nearly 300 employees in Vermont, with plans to hire hundreds more. But the company is still several years away from launching its product, and it faces obstacles and uncertainty ahead.
Company leaders speak boldly about the scale of their ambitions.
“Beta started about five years ago as a mission-based company to help bend the curve on climate change,” said chief operating officer Blain Newton, sitting in his second-floor office in the company’s headquarters at the Burlington airport.
“We’re out to prove that electric, fully-sustainable aviation is commercially viable,” Newton explained.
To do that means creating entirely new systems to get a plane off the ground and into flight, powered by batteries. So, Newton said, Beta is really a propulsion company.
“We build really insanely reliable, high torque-to-weight ratio electric motors, inverters and the battery systems that power it,” he said.
This work is largely happening in South Burlington by employees like Chris Doyle, who works in the company’s fabrication shop. On a recent morning, Doyle held a small piece of aluminum, preparing to grind it down.
“One of the electrical engineers in the back of the airplane suddenly needed a new piece of aluminum about this shape exactly,” Doyle explained. “So I’m going to just mill that up right quickly right here.”
Doyle is one of over 350 people the company now employs, mostly in Vermont, but also in Plattsburgh, Montreal and other locations. Their growth has been exponential: COO Blain Newton said when he started at Beta three years ago, there were about 30 employees.
The company’s technology has also come a long way since its start in 2017. Back then, CEO Kyle Clark, who grew up in Vermont, quietly led a small team to make their first prototype of a battery-powered aircraft that takes off like a helicopter, then flies like a plane. Their second prototype began flight testing in Plattsburgh in 2020. This May, the company flew it 1,400 miles from Plattsburgh to Bentonville, Arkansas. That flight took a week, with a number of charging stops along the way.
“What’s interesting about Beta is that they’ve been flying this aircraft on meaningful flights around the country, over significant distances with people inside,” said Elan Head, a reporter who covers the burgeoning eVTOL industry for a publication called The Air Current. “That’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
Beta is in a competitive field. According to one industry-watcher, nearly 700 companies are trying to get into the eVTOL business. Some are better funded than Beta and have also completed significant test flights. Others haven’t yet flown their aircraft. Head said many in this prospective industry are looking to get into what’s known as “urban air mobility.”
“Which is a vision for the future in which these aircraft will be used to fly people around or between cities, similar to the way Ubers or taxis are used today,” Head explained.
Think electric flying cars, ferrying those who can afford it above city traffic. Beta may supply its aircraft for that purpose. Last year, it announced a deal with a company called Blade, which currently sells helicopter flights from Manhattan to JFK and Newark airports. Blade ordered 20 of Beta’s electric aircraft to be delivered in 2024.
But Beta is not banking on carrying passengers right away. For the most part, it’s focused on selling its planes to transport cargo, COO Blain Newton said.
“We built a working aircraft, one that’s designed to be a utilitarian,” he said. “One of our customers called it the flying F-150. So it’s really intended to be a working vehicle.”
Beta’s other orders are from companies like UPS and United Therapeutics, a company that’s working to develop artificial human organs. Those firms would be using Beta’s aircraft to haul stuff, not people.
Industry reporter Elan Head thinks that could give Beta an advantage.
“I think Beta, more so than many of its competitors, is focused on smaller, but very practical, markets that could give it a really well-defined path to entry in terms of operating this vehicle right away, as soon as it’s certified,” Head said.
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