Nova (1974–…): Season 48, Episode 10 - Great Electric Airplane Race - full transcript

The race to develop a practical and economically-viable electrically-powered airplane.

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
The race is on to stop
the climate emergency.

We're seeing more
and more people really

paying attention
to their carbon footprint.


Aviation is a
fast-growing offender,

but is it too slow to respond?

Aviation will become

the final dinosaur
that doesn't clean up

if we don't act right now.

It's the high-hanging fruit...

One the hardest
climate challenges of all.

It's extremely difficult

to get rid of the fuel,

if you want to transport
tons and tons of passengers.


Could rapid progress

in electric technology change
the equation?

Electric motors are
at a certain point today.

The battery systems
are at a certain point today.

We're within that
edge of possible.

New technology is driving

a global race to push that edge.

This might sound crazy,
but we believe

it's the future
of transportation for everybody.


A new era may be closer
than you think.

Are we flying
the future right now?

We absolutely are.

"The Great Electric
Airplane Race"

is cleared for take off...

Right now on "NOVA."


All right, Wendy,
this your first day flying?

Actually, yep,
this is my first flight.

A trip to the airport

in Watsonville, California,
shrouded in mystery.

I've been invited here
by a publicity-shy company...

For a flight to an
undisclosed location

to see a groundbreaking
new flying machine.

Beyond that,
details are sketchy.

Our pilot is Wendy Kraft.

You've been flying
helicopters for a long time.

Is this the kind of thing
you'd like to share with many

more people, that ability
to go anywhere, anytime?

Oh, absolutely,
especially in this area.

I mean, having grown
up in Santa Cruz,

there wasn't really a traffic
problem back in the day,

but now, traffic is horrendous.

Helicopters are only
for the lucky few.

It's about $1,000 an hour
to operate this one.

And, of course, they're noisy.

We fly for an hour, and then...

Without warning, there it is,

sitting on a remote airstrip...

A successor to the helicopter.

An aircraft that flies
without a drop of fossil fuel,

part of an electric
revolution in flight.

One with the ambitious goal
of democratizing

the rare privilege
we just enjoyed.

And maybe, just maybe,
help save the planet.


The climate emergency
is here and now.


The greenhouse gas
carbon dioxide

is at the highest
level it's been

in at least 800,000 years.


It's an existential crisis

that is prompting action.

Globally, about 15%
of the human carbon footprint

comes from transportation.

We see some signs of progress...

Electric car sales
are rising as prices drop.

We're seeing
more and more people really

paying attention
to their carbon footprint.

But aviation?

It's one of the hardest
transportation problems

to solve.

Yet all over the world,
engineers, entrepreneurs,

and aviators are trying
to meet the challenge.

We believe it's going
to happen sooner

than most people imagine.

If you fly on small
commuter airlines today,

you can expect some version
of electric aircraft

within the next five years.

Today it's hard to see,

but it may just
be a matter of time.


Because electric motors
are so small,

yet powerful and responsive,

designers can distribute
them all over an aircraft

and replace control
surfaces like ailerons,

stabilizers, and rudders.

The motors reduce drag
and are much more efficient.

They are experimenting,
starting small,

creating some flying machines
like never seen before.


There's even more at stake
than the climate emergency.

Aviation has a serious
pollution problem

that is just now
coming into focus.

Just after dawn on a sunny,

blustery October
morning in Boston,

a pair of scientists are
chartering a fishing boat.

So we can definitely
try to get to as close

to the runway as possible.

But environmental
engineers Neelakshi Hudda

and John Durant
of Tufts University...

How much closer do you want
to get, another hundred meters?

Are casting...

This might be a good spot.

Might be a great spot.

For plumes
of emissions generated

by aircraft heading
into Logan Airport.

Combustion of Jet A fuel
in airplane engines

is a bigger piece
of the overall pollution pie

than most people recognize.

The amount of Jet A
that's consumed at Logan

is about 25% of all
the fuel that's consumed

in the city of Boston
by all the cars.

And there are millions
of people that live around

big, large airports
that are impacted

by these emissions
day in and day out.

And it's a chronic insult,

environmental insult,
to those communities.

They are out to answer
a simple question...

How pervasive
is that chronic insult?

Basically, we are
seeing a plume downwind

from the plane,
which results in a spike

in the concentrations
that we are measuring.

They are measuring
the quantity and the size

of toxic particles, the remnants
of incomplete combustion.

Average size: ten nanometers,

that's really small particles.

The smaller the particle is,

the deeper it can penetrate
into your lungs.

They have been
associated with a slew

of cardiovascular
health effects,

respiratory health effects,

elevation in blood pressure,
systemic inflammation,

and have the capacity
to actually penetrate

the blood-brain barrier directly

and deposit in human brain.

Hudda has an
electric car outfitted

with similar equipment.

So here's a size distribution...

She drives through neighborhoods

under the flight paths
continuously gathering data.


Her pioneering work
began in Los Angeles in 2012.

Driving a similarly
equipped car,

she systematically
traversed the neighborhoods

beneath the final approach paths

to Los Angeles
International Airport.

She was able to identify
a distinct plume

from the airplanes that went
much farther than she expected.

We went 20 kilometers,

and I still don't think
that's the end of it.

I just ran out of battery
at that point in my car.

No one had suspected that they'd
find a really clean signal

20 kilometers
downwind of an airport.

If you look at
the top 23 airports,

about ten percent of the
U.S. population lives

within ten miles
of those airports.

We all benefit from aviation,

but we all don't
really pay for it equally.

And yet we all pay a price

for aviation's impact
on the climate emergency.

Before the pandemic,

aviation accounted for about
three-and-a-half percent

of the world's
climate-warming problem.

About two thirds
of jet fuel exhaust is CO2.

Less than one percent
are nitrogen oxides,

which also cause warming.

The other third
is mostly water vapor,

which at high altitude becomes
ice crystals... contrails.

When the humidity is right,

contrails spread
and linger for hours,

creating cirrus clouds.

Thousands of flights creating
thousands of contrail-induced

clouds trap a lot of heat.

They have about twice
the impact on global warming

as the CO2 from jet exhaust.

And the problem
is getting worse.

Global aviation
is growing rapidly.

It is predicted to double
in less than 20 years.

In stark contrast,
other forms of transport

are investing heavily
in green alternatives.

If that trend continues,
then aviation is going to

become one of the top polluters
of all industry sectors.

Aviation will become
the final dinosaur

that doesn't clean up
if we don't act right now.

It is a weighty issue.

the weight of jet fuel.

A Boeing 737 can hold
more than 40,000 pounds of it.

Sounds like a lot.

But to replace the jet engines
with electric motors,

you would need
30 times the weight,

or about 1.2 million pounds

of batteries to get
comparable range.


Solving that engineering
challenge will be daunting,

but the first baby steps
have already been taken.

In 2003,
Bertrand Piccard co-founded

the Solar Impulse
project in Switzerland.

The goal: to design and build

a solar electric aircraft that
could fly around the world.

For Solar Impulse,
we had to make a very,

very light airplane...

The weight of a car...
We're flying at the speed

of a moped and transporting one

pilot and zero passengers,

and like this, we could fly
solar with electric engines.

And we lift off...

His partner
in the audacious endeavor

was Andre Borschberg.

I had faith
in the possibility to do it

but of course I didn't know how.

Could we collect enough energy?

And could we use so little

that it would make the flight
through the night possible?

In the end, it took 16 months,

but they did
circumnavigate the planet.

We made it!

What I wanted to do
was to show that

electric aviation
had also a future,

and that the technologies
already exist.

It's not something that we
can do it in a hundred years.

We can do it now,
and actually we did it.

Today, all the people who say,

"Clean aviation is impossible,"

will look as stupid
as the one who said

to the Wright Brothers,
"Your airplane will never fly."

Chandler Airport
in Fresno, California,

has been in operation since
the Wright Brothers era...

Aviation 1.0.

Today the Art Deco glory
has faded...

but Joseph Oldham is using
this old, underutilized place

to help launch
a new age of flight...

Aviation 3.0.

This is the third
revolution of aviation.

The first revolution,
of course, was powered flight.

Second revolution was jets

in the 1940s, early 1950s.

Electric propulsion
is the third revolution.

These are Pipistrel
Alpha Electros,

the first certified,

all-electric airplanes
in the world.

He has four of them
in his hangar.

And he was gracious enough

to give a fellow
pilot the right seat.

All right, we're in.

- Contact, huh?
- Clear.

Huh, that's amazing.

It was as simple
as flipping a switch.

That's it?
That's it.

It was weirdly quiet
as we taxied to the runway.

The noisiest thing on
this airplane are the brakes.

And watch what happened

when we stopped
to wait for traffic.

You just sit here,
just like an electric car.

This just cracks me up.

Yeah, anytime anybody
goes in this airplane

that's used to
a conventional aircraft,

that's what gets them.

Four Alpha Romeo,
you can go ahead and roll.

Four Alpha Romeo rolling.


It's interesting, it doesn't
vibrate in the same way.

Yeah, it's just very
comfortable and very relaxing.

Electric propulsion
systems are so simple

that really there's just nothing

that you really need
to be that concerned about.

Are we flying
the future right now?

We absolutely are.

It was a hazy day,

the result of some
raging wildfires nearby,

a reminder of the climate
emergency which makes

the decarbonization
of aviation so urgent.

How important do you
think that is to think about

taking fossil fuels out
of aviation over the long run?

Well, it's huge,
it's the only mode

of transportation
that really has not moved

towards zero emission.

He got the money
to purchase the planes

by applying for
a grant from Fresno County

to demonstrate advanced
transportation technology.

He believes the planes,
along with charging stations

at airports within range,
will do just that.

Well, we're heading
into land right now so...

You mind if I take
it for a minute?

No, go ahead.

All right, good, thanks.

All right, let's do it.

Keep the ball centered.

There you go.

Ah, it's so smooth.

The range and endurance
are still pretty limited

by the batteries,

so I didn't get much stick time,

but it felt like a magic carpet.

Electric propulsion
opens up new opportunities

for use of almost 5,000
general-purpose airports

in the United States
that are mostly underutilized.

Nice work.
Thank you.


The company that
makes this airplane

is based in Slovenia.

Pipistrel is a pioneer
of electric aviation.

Founder Ivo Boscarol
started tinkering with

ultralight trikes in the 1980s.

He designed
these electric planes

to be flight trainers
for new pilots.

And Joseph Oldham also
has that on his mind as well.

He is waiting for FAA approval

to start a flight school
with these planes.

And he thinks reduced
maintenance and no fuel costs

create an opportunity to bring
more diversity into aviation.

While we spoke,
instructor Chris Caldwell

was giving student pilot
Michael Murphy

a lesson in a conventional
piston-powered airplane.

Take that nose down
just a little bit.

There you go,
doesn't take much.

Hey, you wanna try
a no-flap landing?

Yeah, let's do
a no-flap landing.

Let's see how
different that is.


They are having fun.

They're having too much fun.

That wasn't bad at all.

That was good, man.

Mike is a mentee
of Joseph Oldham's.

He aims to fly for
the airlines one day.

He hopes to be part of
the first generation of pilots

to begin their training
in state-of-the-art

electric airplanes,

not 50-year-old relics
that burn leaded gasoline.

Do you think electric
airplanes are going to be

a game changer for making
aviation accessible

to a broader spectrum of people?

Definitely, definitely.

Well, you're paying 200 bucks,
you know, an hour

to fly one of these little
old 1960 airplanes,

you know what I mean?

So, definitely, I think
it does open up more doors

for people to get their foot
into aviation, at least,

just kind of start off,
you know,

by flying these
little airplanes.

What we're looking at
is solving a pilot shortage

and then also opening the door
for more people of color,

more people from
different backgrounds,

ethnicities, nationalities,

and that's an
international issue.

Two seats and only
an hour of flight

before the battery runs out,

the Alpha Electro
is a case in point

of the infancy
of all-electric aviation.

It is a long way from this...

to that, a long-haul
jet airliner.


The flight path between the two

may be wending its way

through this small hangar
in Camarillo, California.

Here, a small start-up
company called Ampaire

has modified a 1974 Cessna
337 Skymaster.

A twin engine...
One pushes, one pulls.

They replaced
the forward piston engine

with an electric motor

and added a 600 pound
battery pack to the belly.

It's a hybrid they call the EEL.


I think we really
need to focus on

dialing in the
propulsion system first.

Brice Nzeukou is the director

of business
and product development.

We strongly believe
in a fully electric future,

but we're waiting for
regulations to develop,

for technology
to develop, as well,

before we will see
full electrification.

Hybrid is the way
to enter the market.

They have flown
dozens of test flights.

The electric motor does
most of its work on take off

and the climb to altitude.

And then the piston engine

takes the brunt
for cruise and descent.

Fuel costs are
reduced by 20 to 30 percent,

maintenance bills cut in half.

We are trying
to bring this technology

to market as
quickly as possible.

And so we felt that
going the retrofit route

and starting with hybrid,
as well, versus fully electric,

provided a great
mix of performance,

cost savings, and our ability

to get it done technically
in a timely manner.

Not long after this flight test,

they took the EEL to Hawaii.


The company partnered
with Mokulele Airlines

to see how it handles
commuter airline operations

with frequent flights and short
turnarounds between them.

That would be really tough to do

in a fully electric plane

because you would have
to plug in and charge.

That's why this hybrid approach
for us really made sense.

Ampaire is hoping the next
step will look like this,

a converted 19-seat twin Otter,

with electric motors
that run on batteries

charged by an on-board
turbine engine.


Welcome to my hangar.

Susan Ying is Ampaire's

senior VP of global

These regional airplanes

buy Turboprop, or even jets,

they're not making the profit.

In some of the regional
market airlines,

they're going out of business

because they have
very thin margin.

Electric aviation
is going to change that.

The idea of jump-starting

electrified aviation
with hybrids,

just as the Prius did for
fully electric cars,

is gaining traction
in other places.

Like the Dogpatch,

the San Francisco
neighborhood that was once

home of some shipyards,

is now filled with
young innovators thinking big.

And there it is.

But in this case, not too big,

or so Kofi Asante hopes.

And what would you
imagine the time before

overhaul is going to look like?

He's head of strategy
and business development

for a small start-up
called Elroy Air.

They are focused
on an unpiloted vehicle

that can carry 300 pounds
of payload

for 300 miles
at 140 miles per hour.

If it's at one warehouse

and needs to be
at another warehouse,

but it can't get there in time,
you can all of a sudden enable

same-day delivery in a way
that wasn't previously possible.


Batteries alone
would not do the job.

The range would be limited
to 30, maybe 50, miles.

So it also has an
internal combustion engine.

Terik Weekes is Elroy's
chief engineer.

In order to get
something to market,

one, we need to focus
on an unmanned vehicle

and then, two, focus on
the hybrid electric vehicle.

This technology allows us to
have a more efficient aircraft

and have something that's
more economically viable.

Hopefully these vehicles
will eventually become

but we just don't know when.

They have hover tested
this model,

and now are designing
the next iteration.

They believe it can help in
the wake of natural disasters,

or wherever there are obstacles

to getting urgent items
where they are needed,

like vaccines.

Never before

has rapid delivery,

especially of urgent,
like, medical supplies,

or e-commerce,
been this important.

It's just shot through the roof
exponentially overnight.

Our goal is to try
and be a part of that solution

to help us get in a better spot.

But Elroy is thinking
beyond delivery drones

to another mission,
which began with another Elroy.

♪ His boy, Elroy! ♪

Yes, that Elroy.

The company was, and still is,

dreaming of the Jetsons'
flying car.

We believe that there
will be a time where

people are likely in
flying cars and flying taxis.

It's hard to tell whether
that's going be now

or at what point
in time in the future.


Imagine a world filled
with flying cars.

Electric propulsion might
deliver the freedom

of flight to our doorsteps.


In China, one start-up
is testing the waters,

on drones big enough...

to fly people,

mostly on sightseeing tours
of no more than ten minutes.

It is the EHang 216...

Two passengers, 16 propellers.

It's not the first
flight for this passenger.

Edward Xu is chief strategy
officer of EHang.

It's very smooth,
just like an elevator.

You don't have to be a pilot.

You just are simply
sitting as a passenger

and this aircraft will take
you to your destination.

The company claims
it can carry 485 pounds

up to 80 miles per hour,
for about 20 miles.

Not nearly enough capability

to change the face
of personal transportation,

but it has proven people
are willing to try it,

even without a pilot.

The company claims more than
6,000 have flown so far.

Our company is a very
innovative company.

We are doing something
to change the world.

We are doing something
that nobody has done before.

But they have
a lot of competition.

EHang is among
at least 200 start-ups

across the globe,
racing to fill the skies

with electric vehicles.

For decades, aerospace has,

for the most part,
stayed relatively similar.

And now, you're starting
to see a lot of groups

starting companies,
whether it be for

smaller drones,
or larger cargo drones,

or flying taxis or cars.

There's been all sorts
of movement there.

Before the pandemic,

I met with aeronautical
engineer Mark Moore,

who sparked a lot
of this creative thinking.

In 2009, then with NASA,

he designed a concept
vehicle called the Puffin.

It was a single-person

electric vertical take-off
and landing aircraft

that really opened the door
to everyone's eyes

of what electric vertical

take-off and landing
aircraft could be.

And so we actually
called the Puffin

the Gridlock Commuter,

and that name
just instantly clicked.

One of the people
fascinated by Puffin?

Google co-founder Larry Page.

Soon after he saw it,

he began investing in personal
electric aircraft projects.


At a ranch south
of Silicon Valley,

a small team from one
of those companies,

Kitty Hawk,
is flight testing a single-seat

electric aircraft
called Heaviside.

The company
is led by entrepreneur

and computer scientist
Sebastian Thrun.

He invited us for a rare peek

and a slick pitch.

This might sound crazy,

but we believe it's the future
of transportation for everybody.

If you put the car in the air,

there's no obstacle,
you go in a straight line,

you're not in anyone's way.

You don't need roads anymore,
you're more energy efficient.

You're faster, you're safer.

Why would people not want that?

It's an electric vertical

take-off and landing
vehicle, or eVTOL.

The propellers pivot the thrust

from horizontal to vertical,

allowing the craft to take off
and land on a dime...

And still fly
180 miles per hour.



Here we go.

The Kitty Hawk team
is flight testing,

aiming to be certified
for piloted flight

by the Federal
Aviation Administration.


We've built over a hundred

fully functioning prototypes
in the last years.

We've done almost 30,000

individual flights,
and we've learned a lot.

We had, of course,
incidents from which we learn.

Luckily, no one was ever hurt,
we have always been safe.

But yeah, it's been
an evolution to make sure

that even the weakest part
of the aircraft is strong.

Thrun believes
the way to reconcile

his big dream of a Heaviside
in every driveway,

with safety, is automation.

People without
a full piloting skill set

and certification should
be able to hop into those,

punch in their target
address and get there.

Before that, there's many
steps we have to cross,

but I see no technical reason

why we couldn't accomplish
this with this aircraft.

The reason why we do electric
is we are just super quiet,

like we fly over you
and you can't hear us.

Sebastian Thrun is a pioneer

in the development
of autonomous cars.

He is the founder of Google's
self-driving car project.

He says self-flying aircraft
are an easier challenge.

All the stuff to hit
from your bicyclist,

to your playing child,
to your curb, to your shrub,

they're all on the ground.

You go up 500 feet
and there's nothing to hit.

And as we go through this,

we've made it safer
and safer and safer,

in part by adding
more and more redundancy.

But wait, no pilot?

Automation might be safer,

but I'm not sure
I'm ready to take the likes

of Wendy Kraft
out of this picture.

Which brings me back to my
mysterious helicopter ride,

to get a glimpse of its
21st century successor.

Maybe we should
step over and see

how it is to sit
in the aircraft...

Joe Ben Bevirt founded
Joby Aviation in 2009.

The aircraft he
and his team designed

is now in flight testing
for FAA certification.

It's the current
leader in the race

to fill the world
with electric air taxis.

This aircraft is

the culmination of a decade

of research and development
into how to build

an incredibly safe, quiet,
and cost-effective aircraft.

It carries a pilot
and four passengers

under six tilting motors.

It provides us an aircraft

which is incredibly
good at hovering

and incredibly good at cruising.

That efficiency and cruise

is what gets us our
range and gets us our speed.

He says it can fly
200 miles per hour

and has a range of 150 miles.

There are four
batteries in the aircraft.

The batteries that we have
in this aircraft right now

are the batteries that we're
going to production with

and they provide us
the range and performance

that we need to fundamentally
transform transportation.

Joby designs, tests, and builds

almost all the components
of its aircraft,

giving new meaning to the term
vertical integration.

We developed the battery packs,

we developed
the propulsion systems,

we developed the actuators,

we developed the inceptors...

Everything that you see
here is something that

is being developed
and manufactured in-house.

Much of the work was
done in secret in a barn

on a secluded property among
the redwoods in Santa Cruz.

I wanted a place to be able to

experiment and try crazy things.

There's an old quarry
here where they did a lot

of early flight testing.

These days, it is home
to a circular track

where they test
motors for endurance.

There were a number
of years where

we went through a huge amount
of iteration

and trial and error
to learn about

what were the best
aircraft configurations.

Start confirmed.

We're at idle.

I'm gonna bring it to 200 rpm.

Electric propulsion opens up

a huge amount of design freedom.

It allows you to think
really differently about

how you apply the propulsion
to the aircraft.

31 knots, 33 knots.

The aircraft that you've seen

is the culmination of
many years of exploration.


Back at the airstrip,

I met chief test pilot
Justin Paines,

who spent years
in the Royal Air Force

flying Harrier vertical
take-off and landing jets.

So, how much easier is this
to fly, relative to a Harrier,

or for that matter,
a helicopter?

Chalk and cheese.

I could put you in it,
I could stand behind you,

and we could go flying
and you'd be quite capable

of flying the airplane,
it's that simple to fly.

The goal is to have the aircraft

initially certified
for flight with a pilot.

The aircraft has
flown hundreds of times,

mostly by remote control.

Obviously you're still learning,

but is it flying
the way you imagined it?

Yes, this aircraft
is flying incredibly well,

it's a dream come true,

and we're really excited
to put it into production

and share it with the world.


Still media wary,

Joe Ben Bevirt
allowed us to watch,

but would not let us film
one of their test flights.

I was impressed.

It is remarkably quiet,
much quieter than a helicopter.

But the video the company
shot and shared with us later

has no audio,
so the only public recording

of its noise signature
is captured in this promo,

announcing Joby is now
publicly traded by merging

with a special purpose
acquisition company.

Thank you so much.


On paper, Joby was worth

$6.6 billion
when it went public.

The company hopes to have
the aircraft certified in 2023.

We want to be comparable in cost

to the price
of a taxi at launch,

and bring that cost
down to the cost

of personal car ownership
over the coming years.

Uber spent millions
developing air taxi concepts,

but in the midst
of the pandemic,

sold its notional
flight division to Joby.

No one can accuse Joe Ben
Bevirt of thinking small.

In order to have

the impact that we want to have

in order to transform the way
everyone moves every day,

we will need to make
millions of these.

Our mission is to save
a billion people an hour a day.


A billion people
flying air taxis?

How could that be safe?

At NASA's Ames Research Center
in Silicon Valley,

they're tackling the
air traffic control challenge.

That's what led me here,
to the legendary

Vertical Motion Simulator.

Once upon a time,
space shuttle astronauts

honed their landing skills here.

There's nothing
like it anywhere else.

Back on glide slope...

And now, NASA is using
it to understand

how to devise a safe
air traffic control system

for advanced air mobility.

Hey, Gordon, how are you?

Hey, great, Miles.

Let's go eVTOL flying, shall we?

Good to see you, yeah, hop in.

Before the pandemic,
veteran NASA test pilot

Gordon Hardy gave me
a glimpse of the future.

All right, computer's ready.

Cockpit's ready.


So we're over San Francisco
on a nice sunny day.

So I'm trying
to imagine this city

with hundreds of these
aircraft buzzing around it.


What's that going to be like?

Yeah, yeah.

And hopefully not
hitting each other,

nor falling out of the sky.


But the world that Gordon
is helping NASA create

is designed to work
without pilots like him.

Eventually, autonomous air
taxis will need to safely fly

to and from convenient places,

taking off, navigating, landing,

and dealing with emergencies,
all on their own.

It's a complex problem.

So we should see it bank soon...

In another building
not far away,

engineers are
immersed in a 360 degree

virtual depiction of the city,
watching us fly.

We're tracking the
UAM 003 currently.

That's the vertical
motion simulator.

All right, looks good.

And the speed is okay?

Sandy Lozito is chief of
the aviation systems division.

We have to think about

all of those vehicles

being in the air space
at the same time,

performance parameters,

potentially different training
for the ones that are piloted.

And then how do we make sure
that everything stays safe?

In this world,

the idea of a control
tower is outdated.

Looks like we've got the VMS
going up and over the bridge.

Yeah, that's
working perfectly.
All right.

Before COVID, there were
more than 45,000 flights

every day in the U.S.

It's an intricate symphony
precisely conducted

by air traffic controllers.

Are you good?

But if eVTOLs take off,

there will
be a lot more players.

We do not necessarily
expect a centralized

air traffic control tower
to do it with individual

directives telling the pilots

how to come in and out
of the vertiport.

And so, that's a very
different operation.

There could be much more
independence on the part

of the pilots and
the individual operators

as they move in
and out of these areas.


It sounds like
a prescription for disaster.


But NASA has been working
on this for the past few years,

on smaller drones
that don't carry people.

The lessons learned
writing those rules

are offering them a foundation.

So these would be
its operations, right?

Coming in around here
and landing here on top of this.

Shivanjli Sharma is an aerospace
research engineer at Ames.

She and her team are using
data from the simulations

to write the algorithms that
will allow air traffic control

to be digital, more automated,

and distributed.

The goal would be to share
information with other operators

and folks like the FAA
to make sure that everybody

in the airspace knows where
one another really is flying.

In flight, an air taxi
would continuously transmit

its location
to receivers on the ground.

As that vehicle is flying,

we're monitoring its position

in relation to that
four-dimensional volume.

Are they inside that volume,
are they outside of that volume?

Are they in that
volume at the time

they predicted they would be?

There are many hurdles.

At low altitudes in cities,

GPS and cellular signals
can be unreliable.

And what about security?

Transmitting all
this mission-critical,

life and death information
across shared cloud networks

offers its own set of risks.

And there's one
other big challenge,

this new air
traffic control scheme

needs to work safely
alongside the old one.

If there are tubes in the sky

or particular lanes of airspace

in which these
vehicles may transport,

we know that at some point
they're going to be

near conventional aircraft,
commercial aircraft,

and we have to make sure
that those can work together

or can complement one another.


Flying cars may seem
distant to most of us,

but for NASA
engineer Starr Ginn,

it's close to home.

One of the thought leaders
on electric aviation,

she lives in
a house with a hangar,

right beside a runway.

I feel so lucky, right,
I get to live in a Sky Park

and can get in my airplane
and go wherever I want.

This whole time in my mind,
I've been thinking,

"I want everybody to be
able to have what I have."

On this Sunday morning,
she and her husband Tony,

also a NASA engineer,

decided to air out
their Thorp T-18.


A speedy little
homebuilt airplane.


How low can you go?

There's two hundred, 2-0-3.

Can you go lower?



Too much fun.

That's the best feeling.

Fast as the Thorp is,

she knows it could do better.

The wing is not optimized
for speed, deliberately.

Typically, a general
aviation airplane's wing's

designed for stall,
low-speed performance.

The faster air
moves over a wing,

the more lift it provides.

And the greater
the surface area of a wing,

the more lift it can create.

So for safety's sake,
wings are made wide enough

to provide adequate lift
at slow speeds.

But once an airplane levels
off and starts flying faster,

the added lift from that
fat wing is no longer needed.

In fact it's a drag... literally.

The extra surface area makes
the airplane less efficient.

Making a wing narrower
would reduce drag,

but at slower airspeeds
would not create enough lift.

Electric motors offer
a solution to this dilemma.

They are so lightweight
that they can be placed

all across that narrow wing.

Even at slower speeds,
the extra airflow

from these motors adds lift.

In a way,
they're tricking the wing

into thinking
it's flying faster.

You're blowing air

over those wings

as if they think they're up
in the air just cruising

in your normal speed of flight.

To test out the idea,

she teamed up with
fellow NASA engineer

and Puffin creator, Mark Moore.

It was a very small
contingency around

the NASA aeronautics centers

that were this
different group of...

I don't know, rebels.

They attached 18 electric
motors, made by Joby,

to a slender wing and mounted
it high above a truck

to avoid interactions with
the vehicle and the ground.

It looked like a Mad Max truck

with a big distributed
electric propulsion wing

that we drove across the desert

because we couldn't
afford a wind tunnel.

It wasn't any, you know,
spectacular kind of thing,

but it got us
the information we wanted.

At the same time,
Mark and I were getting ready

for a pitch to say,
like, we should really,

like, put this on an airplane.

They convinced NASA brass
to create the first

piloted experimental,
or X, plane

in more than 20 years.

It's the X-57 Maxwell.

It will have 14
Joby electric motors

that will test the advantages

of distributed
electric propulsion.

You're not dependent on
a single motor or controller,

but you distribute that
power across the airframe

so that if any one breaks,
the vehicle can still fly.

Sean Clarke is now the engineer
in charge of the program.

Putting 14 motors on an airplane
is not obviously a good idea,

but we want to take
the time to find out,

is it reasonable to build

an aircraft around
that configuration?

Maxwell is a modification
of an existing

piston engine aircraft.

The new wing is only
40 percent of the width

of the slow speed wing
it replaces,

a huge reduction in drag.

It will take off with
all 14 motors running.

Once leveled off,
the 12 smaller motors

will be shut down
to conserve batteries,

the props folded back.

It's a challenging conversion.

The wiring required
for all those motors,

their electronics,
and the instrumentation

has to fit in
a very tight space.

And it's on
the inside edge, too.
It's on the inside edge.

That's going to be
a little bit tricky.

Yes, and then we're
also concerned a little bit

about the edge right
where it comes out.
Oh, okay.

But the Maxwell team has faced

even more daunting
challenges than this.

In 2016, they ran a test

on the lithium ion batteries.

They stressed them to see
how safe they might be

if they failed in flight.

What we found
is when one cell fails,

it makes the next cell over
get really hot and it fails,

and then the next one fails,
and you have a chain reaction

through all 5,000 cells
on the airplane, potentially.

So they reached out
to NASA experts who designed

the batteries used
by astronauts in space.

The collaboration
led to a much safer

battery pack for Maxwell.

They hope to fly it in 2021.

I'm really interested in these
technologies finding their way

onto passenger aircraft,
to transport class aircraft

someday, but we need
to work up to that.

This is the next step up;
we want to be able to put

a pilot onboard and have
our pilot understand

and feel the response
of the propulsion system

and start working toward
that transport class dream.

The transport class dream,

carrying hundreds of passengers
and tons of cargo,

hinges on range,
speed, and payload.

For now, batteries
come up short on all fronts.

And while they are
getting steadily better,

about five percent a year,

the gap is so wide it will
take at least a decade

for them to catch up, if ever.

Is there a way
to decarbonize aviation sooner?

In Stuttgart, Germany,
electrical engineer

Josef Kallo is working
with a company called H2Fly.

They're making airplanes
that run on hydrogen.

At the moment,

the most promising technology

emission-free is to have
fuel cells with hydrogen.

Fuel cells generate electricity

through an
electrochemical reaction.

Hydrogen reacts with incoming
oxygen to generate electricity.

That current powers
electric motors.

The byproduct is water.

Hydrogen has three times
more energy density

than jet fuel and is
the lightest molecule of all.

But at atmospheric
temperature and pressure,

it's a gas, so it takes up
a lot of volume.

And the energy can't
flow out of the cell

as fast as it can from a fossil
fuel engine or a battery,

so there's less power
available for takeoff.

But it offers much more range.

With the technology,
using a fuel cell with hydrogen,

from today's perspective,
we can say that we can go

six times to eight times
longer in range.


Kallo and his team have
been at it for 13 years.

This is his sixth
generation aircraft.

It has batteries to provide
enough power for takeoff.

In November of 2020, Kallo says

they test flew it
more than 30 times,

validating a range
of nearly 500 miles.

This will prepare
the way forward

to have much, much longer-range

hydrogen fuel cell,
electric propulsion,

and then in that step,

we will have very
efficient planes,

a very efficient
electric propulsion,

and also a very long range.

So I would say,
from an economic point of view,

80 to 100-seater with a range

of 3,500 kilometer is feasible.

Almost half of all
emissions from aviation

come from flights of less
than 2,000 kilometers,

or 1,200 miles.

Hydrogen could make a big dent.

We are definitely
in a revolution in the aviation.

This is very exciting,
very interesting times.


They are times
that demand action

to address
the climate emergency.

But this solution does
not rely solely on altruism.

Electric aviation can
rise on its own merits...

because there is green
in flying green.

Air travel will
be more affordable,

it will come from
a ton more places.

Electric aviation opens
up the number of airports

that we can actually operate
commercial service out of.

We know all the pieces
that have to be put in place.

It's just, how long does it take

to prove the reliability
of that piece,

and then prove each of those
pieces' reliability in a system.

That takes time.

It's going to happen.

It's like Detroit
in the early 1900s,

inventors racing to define

what the automobile
would look like,

a hothouse of innovation,
that started and stayed

in garages for years,

and then seemed to change
the world overnight.

Those competing in the great
electric airplane race

are convinced a revolutionary
moment like that is in the air.


Solar Impulse pioneer
Andre Borschberg

is still chasing
the dream in Switzerland.

He has retrofitted
a two-seat piston aircraft

with an electric motor.

Runway 25 clear for takeoff.

Okay, let's go for
a nice circuit.


The company he started
is called H55.

There is only one switch when
you get into the cockpit here.

You know pilots,
you like to be free.

Here you get free from
the need to use the fuel tank.

All electric, no combustion,

no CO2, no pollution.

When you fly electric,
you don't want to go back

to combustion engine.

It's so convincing that you say,

"Now, I want to continue
with this technology."

Electric motors are
at a certain point today.

The battery systems are
at a certain point today.

We're within that
edge of possible where

we think things will
mature a lot quicker.

You cannot do
everything in one day.

But if we don't start today,
we will not be ready

in ten, 15 years
to be totally clean.

It almost feels like
there's some part of the future

that we think about as,
like, at some point in time,

this is inevitable and now
we're all just mapping out

the plan to try
and to get there.

It's fantastic, eh?

No vibration,

little noise...

that's the future.