Aerospace Startups - Changing the Face of Aviation One Step at a Time

In my previous article, we discussed whether aerospace-focused startups can help revive the economy, and identified potential niches that are growing. The answer seems to be a resounding ‘yes’. New technology companies that address various niches with aerospace/aviation/travel have been identified in Table One. This list is certainly not exhaustive (it was kept to only 50 companies for the sake of brevity), and we undoubtedly missed some deserving firms that should have been included. (We offer our apologies).

Why would we compile such a list of newer technology aerospace companies? The main reason is to motivate our readers to pursue their dreams as well, since this is the era when someone with a noble idea (and some degree of experience) can build a team of good people and have a decent chance to find investors who will help fashion this dream into a possible reality. Quite simply, the last decade or so has opened up novel opportunities for those who are interested in pursuing them. We urge you to peruse Table One and Google any of the companies listed there. Some of these might interest you in buying their products or services, others you might want to send a resume to, and others might motivate you in other ways.

Why Aerospace Needs New Ideas

Quite understandably, established companies are not usually interested in revolutionary products. Why risk your company on something that is unproven and which may diminish your reputation, let alone your profit margins and quite possibly your share price (making you a potential takeover target)? The larger the company, and the more established it is, the more risk averse it is. There are a few companies that break this rule. In fact, Forbes magazine published a list of the 100 most innovative companies in the world in 2013, and only one aerospace company made the list at No. 83. This company is Precision Castparts, a manufacturer of metal components and products that provides investment castings, forgings and fasteners/fastener systems for critical aerospace and other applications. For an industry that is driven by constant change, having only one company on such a list is rather disconcerting. In fact, there were two companies from the restaurants category, which makes it even more embarrassing for the aerospace/aviation/defense world.

With new aerospace/aviation markets emerging in UAVs/drones, space and the possible convergence of automotive and aviation (flying cars), as well as the how communications and information technologies (IT) have entered our industry with SatCom, IFE and wireless technologies, now is an excellent time for new companies to step forward. The 50 companies shown in Table One might impact the industry for years to come. Assuredly, most of these will not survive, or will be bought out by larger competitors once their technologies reach the stage where a mature organization needs to implement an innovative mantra. Creative destruction is the mantra for startups, and there is no better time as in times of chaos. With the UAV market awaiting FAA approval by 2015, and new commercial space companies competing with the established multi-billion-dollar stalwarts, now is that time.

The opportunities for those with a viable idea are boundless, and they will drive the creation of new wealth, new jobs and the next market shift in aerospace. Can you imagine Boeing and Airbus being supplanted by some new innovative aircraft that could also drive mega-airlines out of business, or, to become on-demand taxi services, if they stay in business at all? What if someone finds a way to use unmanned UAVs to provide an air-taxi service that provides on-demand travel to key destinations, and then use a flying car to transport you directly to your destination from some centralized hub? All without a single pilot, just a controller sitting in an office cubicle directing your journey with a joystick? For the sake of categorization, let’s lump these listed companies into three groups: already here, coming soon, and the dreamers, and cover a few examples of each.

Already Here

A number of the recently-launched companies listed are operational, and many of these are for web-based services, such as Aviation Auction House (AAH) which has entered the crowded e-marketplaces niche. With giants such as ILSMart, PartsBase, Aeroxchange and StockMarket.com commanding large parts of the market, there are about two dozen or so other companies with differing niches competing with one another for listing or transacting aircraft parts. AAH has a friendly user interface which is relatively uncluttered, and seems to mimic an eBay-like experience (a good choice on their part). Other notable recent companies in this category include Fipart (in Germany) and RHOBI. Each offers a different user experience and appeals to different market niches, and only time will tell if any of these are able to displace the current market leaders. All are worth a look.

PassNFly waslaunched earlier this year and offers a universal boarding pass for travelers, which can be installed onto smartphones or tablets (either Blackberry, Apple iOS, Android or Windows Mobile devices). This app competes with solutions from each airline by supporting most flight check in, boarding pass and flight information for more than 200 major airlines. The user interface has a very intuitive design, so it will be interesting on how this competes with airline-specific offerings. Their key claim is that instead of downloading and using a dozen airline-specific apps, you only need one (theirs). This one is on a must-try-soon list.

From a materials perspective, NanoFabrix films utilize advancements in nano- and micro-particles to address a number of aerospace needs, such as anti/de-icing of the lift surfaces, EMI shielding of the cockpit electronics, and protecting against solid-particle erosion and wear of the turbojet turbine blades. While communications and data-driven companies seemingly get more attention today, it is nice to see major advancements in other aircraft applications such as materials. Carbon fiber reinforced plastic and other composites use has been driven by the Boeing 787 and other new-generation aircraft, so we seemingly have a materials competition in aerospace, since aluminum suppliers are providing lighter alloys and titanium suppliers are trying to reduce their price points to keep carbon fiber and newer nano materials at bay. With numerous flying car manufacturers working on potential products, materials will become nearly as important as the engine technologies driving these vehicles.

Coming Soon

This category of companies has products or services that should launch in the next year or so, and are confident enough to release some details on their forthcoming product launches.

This includes many of the UAV-focused companies, as they prepare for the 2015 deadline for the FAA to allow the use of drones in commercial airspace. Some of these companies have products available for limited use, and others are testing beta versions.

TerrAvion provides high revisit rate aerial imagery for agriculture and is currently aimed at the California wine grape market. Its service provides vineyard-specific data which can be used to optimize irrigation, efficiently scout large areas for disease or other problems, and harvest planning. This is quite simply a service which has adapted various sensory and aerial technologies for use by a specific (at least initially) market niche which can mitigate the risk of weather, climate and soil conditions to the wine industry. Agriculture welcomes any advances which help in minimizing climatic risks, and the business case for TerrAvion is proved out, it will be interesting how farming in the U.S. will benefit once its service expands to other crops.

IronShield is developing portable ground control stations (GCS) for micro-unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) based upon the Google Android operating system. UAVs are usually controlled through radio systems, and there is typically a gap in capability when advanced mission planning and control, which its IronShield mission planning system addresses. By using an open OS, IronShield has been able to expedite its product development effort, and can potentially tap into third-party developers which have experience with the widespread Android software, or potentially team with other hardware vendors which support this software (Samsung, HTC, Google Motorola, etc). This product allows the user to actively plan and complete missions while in the field without requiring network connectivity (who needs Verizon and AT&T?). If it succeeds, it will be interesting to see who might buy them out due to the choice of software platform and connectivity, let alone the potential to self-manage drone fleets more easily.

The Dreamers

Ah, this is the fun category. Hotels in space, asteroid mining, space tourism and flying cars — this almost sounds like an episode of “The Jetsons.” (For those of you who are too young to understand this reference, call your parents for an explanation, or think “Futurama.”)

The idea of a flying car precedes the airplane, as the (supposedly) Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria designed plans for a flying automobile in the 1880s and was declared insane shortly afterwards. Recently, German scientists have revealed him to be an unrecognized pioneer of flight, since his basic design was proven to be feasible recently. Ludwig had planned to create a fleet of flying machines that would take him around Bavaria to his numerous castles, including the fairytale Neuschwanstein castle (which later inspired Walt Disney’s castle at his amusement parks). Quite simply, Ludwig lacked a proper venture capital and public relations team to help broadcast his idea and bring it along for market acceptance, and paid the price by being deposed of the throne. (This seems to happen to many early entrepreneurs, so apparently little has changed.)

There is quite a bit of activity around the efforts for a practical flying car today, with numerous companies addressing this. Dozens of companies have tried to develop something over the decades and some had a degree of technical success, but certainly lacked economic success. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded a project called Transformer to develop a four-person payload greater than 250 nautical miles on one tank of gas, which has a goal of assisting our warfighters.

Terrafugia, HALOSaucer (its is a recreational, off-road vehicle) and CFC AirCar are three companies tackling the commercial approach for an economically-viable solution. I hope that one of them names their product the LudwigMobile so that the dead king can rest in peace with a smile on his face.

Asteriod mining is another interesting niche that has attracted much interest. Apparently, there are three types of potential asteroid mining: (1) transport raw material to Earth for use, (2) refine it on site to transport processed materials back down to Earth, or (3) move the asteroid/near-earth-object to a benign orbit around the moon, Earth or the International Space Station. (What could possibly go wrong with a profit-driven company trying to save money and boost executive bonuses pushing astronaut gold-miners to ‘speed things up’ by moving a huge space rock a ‘bit closer’ to Earth to reduce its costs? This is a Hollywood movie in the making. Someone call a space lawyer quickly.) Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources are two the companies with major financial backing and which are seriously pursuing this.

NanoSatisfi is developing small, low-cost satellites. Its first demo unit will be launched on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, and will be deployed without entering the station’s interior (to avoid legal issues — apparently lawyers have already conquered space). Technically, this is a not a ‘dream’, but since this company is a long way from demonstrating that this can be accomplished on a regular, timely basis in an economically-feasible manner, we still placed them into the ‘dreamers’ category. Let’s hope that we can shift them over to the ‘already here’ column. NanoSatisfi aims to provide convenient, affordable, on-demand access to satellites, possibly for $250 for one week’s access (available for purchase on their Web site today). Just imagine, you will soon be able to rent satellite time for your daughter’s birthday party and will be able to conduct games or experiments. (There is no truth to the rumor that NanoSatisfi is working on a water-balloon delivery system as an optional service). Your kid will call you ‘Astro Parent’ forever.

There are many other companies listed here that deserve to be noted, but, hopefully we have motivated some of you enough to research them on your own.

Never a Better Time to Start a Company, or at least TO Support a New Startup

The world is constantly shrinking, and the more it does, the more products we will have to choose from. Now is the time for you to consider how and when you will be part of the technological evolution. You are part of an industry that the global economy depends upon to move people, goods and services around the world (and out of it, at least to near-earth orbit for now). The support needs of many of these vehicles are different from what is typically performed today, and the aviation maintenance profession will need to evolve to meet the challenge.

You can choose whether you want to be a consumer (or supporter) of some of these new products (or at least consider them), to join one of these new companies seeking to change the world, or, perhaps start one of your own. Choose wisely. 

John Pawlicki is CEO and principal of OPM Research. He also works with Information Tool Designers (ITD), where he consults to the DOT’s Volpe Center, handling various technology and cyber security projects for the FAA and DHS. He managed and deployed various products over the years, including the launch of CertiPath (with world’s first commercial PKI bridge). John has also been part of industry efforts at the ATA/A4A, AIA and other industry groups, and was involved in the effort to define and allow the use of electronic FAA 8130-3 forms, as well as in defining digital identities with PKI. His recent publication, ‘Aerospace Marketplaces Report’ which analyzed third-party sites that support the trading of aircraft parts is available on OPMResearch.com as a PDF download, or a printed book version is available on Amazon.com.

 

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