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Velkommen til Lørn.tech. En lærings dugnad om teknologi og samfunn med Silvija Seres, Sunniva Rose og venner.
SS: Hello and welcome to a podcast by Lørn.Tech. Today we have an English-speaking guest. So, we're doing this one in English. Welcome Kevin Noertker, co-founder and CEO of Empire.
KN: Yes. Thank you for having me here today.
SS: What's a cool drone guy like you doing in Norway?
KN: Well, so all our company Ampair, if you were to look at the name of the company “amp” and “air” its electric aircraft. And Norway is one of the best places in the world for an electric Aircraft company, as the first country in the world to commit to having all of its domestic air travel go fully electric soon. And so, we're putting ourselves here in order to help make it happen.
SS I did not know that. I am a big fan of the guy who used to regulate this until a few days ago, and I didn't know that you wrote 2040 all electric, all of Norway?
KN: That's the goal.
SS So, you came here to help?
KN: That's right. So, our company is focused on building commercial electric aircraft that will fly the short hops between all of the Cities here in Norway, especially those that are difficult to get to on the land.
SS: So tell us why this is difficult. Why is an electric aircraft, which is also a drone difficult to build?
KN: The difficulty comes in three portions. One is the technology. Obviously building a large electric vehicle that flies is not easy. So, it takes a lot of very smart engineers who understand both the challenges of aerospace and drones, but then also the challenges of electric vehicles.
SS: So help us understand. Why is that very different from having guests powered airplane?
KN: There are a few things that need to be handled differently, especially when you have high powered systems flying through the atmosphere the way that you handle the weather, the way the system performs as a pilot, tries to accelerate or decelerate. For the most part though the operation of these planes will actually be simpler and potentially even safer than the fueled counterparts.
SS So, it's a little bit like Ben Franklin's kite. Attracting a lot of impaired in the air?
KN: Will hope that we don't have to charge from the lightning and the sky.
SS: So, this battery thing. I know a little bit about Tesla versus the others. And people keep telling me they figured out the battery before everybody else. And then they built a car around it. So, is that what you trying to do, is it actually building a plane around the battery or stuffing a battery in the plane?
KN :The first step for us is actually to use existing planes and to convert them from their fueled configuration over to a fully electric or hybrid electric configuration. So, for example, we're taking a twin-engine plane right now and taking one of those engines and making it a fully electric powertrain. Everything from the batteries all the way through the motor that spins the propeller. So, the aircraft itself is a hybrid and we'll be flying that later this year.
SS: So an important part of life of drones has to do with electrically powered stuff as well. And there's something amazing going on in the world of batteries. And can you enlighten us within a minute?
KN: Yes. Battery technology is progressing quite well. Now, it's not Moore's Law and doesn't progress as quickly as computers have, but with a real impact is the increased energy density and the decreased cost of production for batteries. That's absolutely essential for aircraft, especially on the weight side, having a lot of stored energy for low weight in the aircraft. So that you can actually take off.
SS: So batteries are becoming very much lighter?
KN: About three to five percent per year. Which is doubling every year which would be nice. It certainly is enough to make a compelling product.
SS: And is it this particular kind of batteries lithium iron we see in many new ways of applying batteries?
KN: There are many energy storages types out there right now, lithium ion are the ones that are aviable for electric aircraft. However, a number of emerging alternate chemistries of lithium ion batteries or other battery chemistries altogether, or even potentially other energy hydrogen fuel cell type technologies could make their way into airplane someday.
SS: Cool. You have to build the airplane differently, because it has a big battery inside, how is the shape different?
KN: So, there's an opportunity to build airplanes that are uniquely optimized to take advantage of the electric propulsion. Just like Tesla redesigned the car from the ground up eventually. So, we'll aircraft be redesigned around the new propulsion systems. The first step however is to use existing planes that already are flying around. And just converting them from their fuel over to electric.
SS: In terms of efficiency, help us understand what's the expensive part about having and operating an airplane? Will this be just toys for the super-rich and political correctness, or will this actually be both good business and good environment?
KN: Absolutely. So, we are intending to be very good business and great for the environment and for everybody. One of the key factors on operating aircraft is the expense of the fuel and the maintenance. By switching to electric, you can decrease the relative fuel cost by a factor of 10 and decrease the maintenance cost by a factor of 2.
SS: So that's the hybrid solution?
KN: Fully electric is what those numbers are from. Hybrid still uses a little bit of fuel, but still much more efficient. So, that makes it economically more efficient which opens up more routes for everybody to fly. Not just the super wealthy.
SS: Why is electricity so much cheaper than the fuel normally used by planes?
KN: Well, because sustainable generation of electricity whether that's Hydro or thermal or wind or solar, all enables the generation of relatively low-cost energy. Especially if that energy can be stored from various times of the day and used in the airplanes efficiently.
SS: Help me with another question I have. Are drones something that has to be autonomous, or semi-autonomous. Can you stuff a pilot in it and still call it a drone? or what do you think, do you care?
KN: I do care. I care deeply. I spent seven years of my career working on drones in the United States unmanned aircraft. And electrification and autonomy go hand in hand. So, we anticipate the most electric aircraft severe can become autonomous. However, the key is that you can have optionally drone. So, the pilot doesn't necessarily need to be on board or in control. So, there are different phases of being a drone. Some aircraft that are in development right now have the option to either have a pilot in the seat, a pilot on the ground, or no pilot at all.
SS: No pilot at all? “Look ma, no hands. Look ma, no eyes!”.
KN: Exactly! And that's going to be a little bit slower to get into market obviously. There are risks associated with having no pilot in the loop, but eventually we may see that occur. Just like we're starting to see the transition in cars.
SS: But really, airports have been “look ma, no eyes” for quite some time. There was a lot of autonomy when you're landing the plane, and when you're flying the plane. Can you tell me what those pilots really are doing in the commercial Jets?
KN: So, what they're doing is they're coordinating with the other pilots. And with the ground control. So, while the planes can pretty much fly themselves, especially while cruising, can sometimes take off on their own and even land on their own. In an environment where there are other aircraft flying around. It's very complex, and you still need to communicate with the ground and with the other planes. And so that's really the key factor of what pilots are doing. Their planning the routes and make sure that planes are flown safely. Now that could be someday from the ground, from a ground control station. Or it could be done through autonomous communications between the aircraft themselves.
SS: Very cool. What got you into drones? Can you can you tell me two sentences about your background, and what kind of guy you are. And then, why drones?
KN: So, I got my degree in mechanical engineering from Cal Tech. Where I was doing most of my research in autonomy and robotics. I am Fascinated by everything that flies, and I also love the outdoors. One of the things I love about drones was the drone footage, so videos from the sky. This pairing of high-tech flight, with the beauty of nature was the first thing that combined to of the things I'm passionate about and ultimately made me fall in love with drone technology.
SS: We have these really cool drone company in Norway called “Blue eye robotics”, you know them?
KN: I've heard of them.
SS: They are they are your kind of counterpart there. Is this beautiful girl who's had this vision about how she really wants to take beautiful imagery from below the sea and show people how beautiful that part of nature is. And so, she has a drone that goes deep.
KN: So, you still haven't told the full story about why you're in Norway.
KN: So, we're here taking part in a program called Tech stars. This is one of the world's top accelerator programs. A support network to help grow startup companies. So, 10 companies from all around the world were invited here to Oslo in order to work with Partners like Ecuador, Kongsberg and Mackenzie as well as the Tech stars program. In order to build our companies as quickly as possible. So very excited to be here for three months working on that.
AA: What's the best example of a Norwegian drone you've seen?
KN: Oh, well, I'll go back to just based on where my heart was initially when I got excited about drones. Seeing the drones fly over the fjord, especially seeing the videos of it pairing this amazing unique landscape here in Norway with the high-tech footage from the drones. I just I smile every time I think about it.
SS: I see some of these videos when I see it on the airport express train and its really is breathtaking. Did you collaborate with any of the companies here?
KN: So, we've met with individuals from Avinor. They made the statement that they intend for all the domestic air travel to go electric here. We've also spoken with people from Wideroe who operates the aircraft, especially the turboprop aircraft here in Norway.
Plus, the there's a booming Tech startup scene here, as well as an eye towards sustainability and eliminating the harmful pollution and noise from aircraft is also part of our core vision, and we
see a lot of alignment with people here in Norway on that.
SS: If you Were to recommend people to learn more about drones. What would you show them?
KN: So, drone technology is changing very rapidly. And so, rather than reading books that were published years ago. I would recommend subscribing to news aggregators or news media companies that publish weekly, or sometimes multiple times a week, all the news on what's going on with drones. It's very exciting. And there are a few great news agencies out there that are publishing.
SS: And they have other very cool videos. I want to ask you for one minute. You mentioned that it might be a pilot on the ground, or it might be a pilot in the plane or no pilot at all. Tell us a little bit about these pilots on the ground. So, there is a new type of education for drone pilots. What do they need to know other than playing with the joystick?
KN: The biggest part of that education is actually on the regulatory side, and the safety side. To ensure that when a pilot on the ground is operating an aircraft in the air, they're doing so with an awareness of the impacts that aircraft could have on the world around them. Whether if it's privacy or safety. It's important to understand the restrictions and the others that you might impact while flying. Now, that's the biggest part of being trained as a pilot for drones.
SSL: So you are getting a license?
KN: Effectively a driver's license.
SS: It will be fun to see how we manage to actually exercise authority to drive drones.
KN: Absolutely and it's sometimes hard to track, and what we're seeing is increased regulations on tying the drone to an individual pilot and ensuring that there's a certification for the usage of it. Now, unfortunately that makes it a little bit harder to use drones sometimes but hopefully we can build a positive and strong ecosystem for the productive use of drones in the future.
SS: Very cool. Kevin, we are at the end of our time slot. So, if you are to summarize in two sentences, what Ampair does and why it is very important. What would you say?
KN: So, Ampaire is on a mission to be the world's most trusted developer of practical and compelling electric aircraft, from short haul cargo to potentially someday supersonic passenger transport. What we do is we're making aircraft that are significantly lower cost to operate, that emit much lower pollution and noise, are better for the environment and for society. We're very excited about that.
SS: Well, thank you for sharing your knowledge both with us here at Lørn.tech, and with Norwegians in general.
KN: Wonderful. Thank you for having me.
SS: And thank you for listening.
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What do you do at work?
I work at Ampaire, an aerospace tech startup company located in Los Angeles California. We're backed by the Techstars Accelerator program, and I'm currently working full time here in Oslo.
What is a drone?
A drone is a flying robot which doesn't need direct input from a pilot in order to perform it's key functions. Sometimes, other autonomous vehicles are also being called drones (like autonomous ships).
Why is it exciting?
The most exciting developments happen at the interface between different technologies. Drones are enabled by a combination of electrification and artificial intelligence, which has only recently become possible.
Why is it scary?
Change is scary sometimes, and often times society and regulations struggle to keep up with technology change. Drones with cameras sometimes cause concern about privacy rights, and also sometimes cause concern about the safety integrating over airspace and over populated areas.
Your best example of drone?
I like applications where drones help make jobs safer. My best example is where drones are used to precisely inspect infrastructure and provide real-time information on the system they are observing. This job is dangerous and tedious to do as a person, and perfect for a drone.
Your favorite examples of other Norwegian drones?
I love watching the drone footage flying over the fjords and mountains. So beautiful. It uses high technology to highlight the beautiful nature around us.
How does it really work?
Drones basically have tiny computers that process significant amount of data, including visual and positioning. Depending on the drone, it either relays that information to someone on the ground, or makes decisions on it's own on what to do next.
What do we do uniquely well in Norway this?
I saw an article recently on Norway using drones to clean up the fjords. That's a great use.