Alaka’i Technologies is stepping up efforts to bring its Skai hydrogen-powered eVTOL aircraft to market, as it seeks a strategic production partner and fresh investment. Having worked quietly from its headquarters near Boston since unveiling the design in May 2019, the start-up came out of stealth mode in late September to report that it has its FAA G1 type certification issue paper in hand and is finalizing the means of compliance for testing a full production prototype starting in 2022.
Co-founder Brian Morrison told FutureFlight that his team has been working on an open-frame testbed fitted with all the production systems for the planned four-passenger vehicle. After dealing with some supplier delays, the company expects to be able to start testing propulsion systems, consisting of hydrogen fuel cells and six electric motors and rotors, on what it calls certification vehicle one (CV1) before the end of December.
Meanwhile, design work on structural elements, including landing gear and seats, is being finalized, with the CV2 and CV3 examples expected to be ready for testing in 2022. Morrison said an earlier prototype has completed “hundreds of hours” of tethered flight testing, mainly to support software development work for the Skai’s flight controls.
While civil type certification has proved to be a long and complex path, Alaka’i is confident it will be able to secure U.S. military airworthiness approval more quickly. It aims to build some early production vehicles next year and deliver these to National Guard units in several Southeastern states to evaluate their suitability for roles such as emergency response missions. These aircraft will be operated with either a pilot on board or remotely from the ground.
For commercial services, Alaka’i expects the Skai to have a pilot on board for some time, predicting that flight training requirements will become less onerous with the eventual acceptance of technology to support simplified vehicle operations. The company says the aircraft will use an as-yet-undisclosed avionics suite, including a triple-redundant autopilot system, that is already FAA-certified and has been in use for thousands of flight hours.
With engineering work accelerating, Alaka’i is in talks with prospective manufacturing partners from the automotive industry. Like several other eVTOL aircraft developers, the company anticipates annual production rates as high as 4,000 units within three or four years.
“We’re in good shape with the research and development effort,” Morrison said. “We’re trying to attract a strategic partner who could bring some more funding, and ideally someone with global reach.”
Alaka’i expects to be ready later this year to disclose the identity of an air taxi operator that has committed to purchasing at least 100 of the aircraft, with options for 1,300 more. The company says it is also in talks with large operators based in Brazil and the Middle East.
“As people look more at this, even in places like the Middle East they are very focused on the potential for hydrogen and the need to make changes as oil becomes less acceptable,” said Morrison. With express delivery groups like FedEx, Amazon, and UPS committing to carbon-neutral future business models, he sees this sector as a likely early adopter of hydrogen-powered aircraft.
The Skai will have a 400-liter liquid hydrogen fuel, which is sufficient to support around four hours of flying at speeds of up to 115 mph. Alaka’i expects most trips to be between 10 and 150 miles, supporting intra-urban and city-to-city connections.
“Hydrogen gives advantages for multiple types of missions,” stated Morrison. “The aircraft isn’t tied to operating from vertiports for recharging or swapping out batteries. It can be divorced from all of that [purpose-built] infrastructure and land in places like rooftops.”
With hydrogen fuel supplies becoming far more prevalent for a variety of ground vehicles and other industrial use, Alaka’i sees its aircraft potentially having an easier path to scaled-up operations than battery-based eVTOLs. The Skai is expected to take about six minutes to fully refuel.
Alaka'i was founded back in 2006 by Morrison, a former Raytheon senior executive who holds around 30 aviation technology patents, and Vietnamese entrepreneur Vu Quang Hoi. Its chief technology officer is Bruce Holmes, the former head of NASA's Advanced General Aviation Transport Experiments Alliance (AGATE) program.