ARPA-E Investor Update Vol. 3

Ampaire Inc. and the Future of Electric Aviation

On February 18, regional air travel company Surf Air Mobility announced that they have entered into a definitive agreement to acquire hybrid-electric aviation startup Ampaire Inc., incorporating Ampaire’s unique electric powertrain technology into their plans to make electric air travel more widely available, sustainable, and affordable. The deal, reportedly worth roughly $100 million, would see Surf Air take on complete ownership of Ampaire, including hiring their existing employees, and operating it under a new division of the company called AMP [1]. In the acquisition announcement, Surf Air stressed the importance of adding Ampaire’s proprietary technology to their portfolio, emphasizing the importance of the deal to “…dramatically improve the affordability, accessibility, and environmental footprint of aviation, beginning with regional travel.” [2].

Launched in January 2017, ARPA-E’s Creating Innovative and Reliable Circuits Using Inventive Topologies and Semiconductors (CIRCUITS) program works to develop a new class of efficient, lightweight, and reliable power converters based on wide bandgap (WBG) semiconductor technology for use in a range of technology applications, including in the transportation space. The converter topologies developed in the CIRCUITS program take advantage of the WBG devices to operate at significantly higher speeds, voltages, and temperatures than those based on conventional semiconductor materials, and do so in smaller, lighter packages. [3]

Power electronic technology development is expected to play a critical role in emerging electric aviation as it is essential to electrical power management, providing optimal conditions for distribution and consumption in the propulsion motor as well as the auxiliary systems of electric aircraft. As the CIRCUITS program progressed, ARPA-E identified a specific need for testing electric aviation power electronics in real-world flight environments, which is key to validate the technologies in high-altitude conditions. This was a particularly difficult technical challenge, as not many existing aviation platforms are certified to operate experimental hardware in flight, like those developed under CIRCUITS. This led to ARPA-E selecting Ampaire to develop a dedicated aircraft as an intrinsically safe and reliable testbed where technologies developed in CIRCUITS projects can be operated at high altitude (up to 6km) in actual flight environments.

With ARPA-E funding, Ampaire converted a Cessna 337 into the largest aircraft to fly using plug-in hybrid electric propulsion; called the 337 Electric EEL. The custom-built aircraft was designed with extra testbed space and payload capacity, allowing CIRCUITS teams to test and monitor functionality in flight safely. [4] The work under the CIRCUITS program complements Ampaire’s partnership with Hawaiian-based Mokulele Airlines to fly short, enabling them to operate short 20-minute demonstration flights of the 337 Electric EEL utilizing a single charge. These demonstration flights allowed Ampaire to showcase the validity of their Electric EEL’s electric powertrain system, as well as the potential to reduce emissions using reliable electric aircraft for short flight use. [5]

Ampaire’s success story is a great example of how the ARPA-E program model of research and development funding can target very specific technical goals and translate them not just to a single application but across many other sectors including, as in this case, the emerging electric aviation market. Through this collaboration with ARPA-E, it will be possible to advance the commercial deployment of new technologies that could become game-changers in cost effective, reliable, low-emissions electric aviation. With support from ARPA-E to test power electronics at high altitudes, Ampaire continued down the path of successfully demonstrating reliable, low-emissions aircraft and showing just how the future of electric aviation may be closer than some think.

More information on CIRCUITS is available on the CIRCUITS program page. Stay tuned for more exciting Investor Updates as we continue to track what some of the most successful ARPA-E performers have gone on to achieve since their initial funding concluded!