Peter Berger, director of innovation, EmbraerX Lindsay Bjerregaard/Aviation Week

Fast 5: EmbraerX Focuses On Innovating Practically for eVTOL

Peter Berger, director of innovation at EmbraerX, talks to Lindsay Bjerregaard at EAA AirVenture 2019 about future plans for its eVTOL concept and newly launched Beacon maintenance platform.

A big theme at EAA AirVenture this year has been urban air mobility (UAM). EmbraerX is working to build its own eVTOL concept—what’s the progress on the concept and what is still on the to-do list?

We’re very fortunate that there are a series of different technologies coming to maturity that are going to help us move forward with this—electrification, flight controls and so forth. Our program is actually making really surprising progress because, of course, the goals are actually relatively soon. We have made a lot of huge leaps in the last few months. We will be able to do a lot more “show and tell” in the next coming months. I can’t give you an exact date because a lot of the challenges are associated with internal processes on our part.

We’ve built over the last 50 years a whole series of processes and evaluations that allow us to bring technologies to the market safely and get them certified. That means the early part of everything seems a bit slow to the outside, but once we get our momentum going, things fall into place really quickly. As my father used to say, measure twice, cut once—same concept.

One topic that comes up often with UAM is the public’s concern or skepticism about the feasibility and safety of eVTOL concepts. What is EmbraerX doing—particularly here in Oshkosh—to get the public more comfortable with the idea of eVTOL?

The first thing we do is listen. We can make assumptions about what people are worried about, but in reality, all we can do is listen to their questions and respond as transparently and honestly as possible. [One of] the questions that comes up the most is, “How much will it cost?” and as we communicate, we’re building this product for everybody. At the beginning of commercial operation, it’ll be the price of an Uber Black, and at scale, the price of an UberX. The goal is enabling people to use this 10 times a week—to and from work, on weekends, etc. And for us, this creates a large enough market to not only justify the research and development, but to provide a tremendous amount of opportunity for ourselves as an OEM, for the operator and for our partners over at Uber to make a very healthy ecosystem.

[In terms of safety], the thing that we’re very fortunate to have is a lot of heritage behind us. There are a lot of projects that are started from new companies that are meeting this challenge in really unique and novel ways. And I can’t stress the quality of engineering and thought all across every project in this space, but for us in particular, we’re matching our strengths with the challenge. Our strengths are that we’ve certified more aircraft in the 21st century than any major air manufacturer and we specialize in aircraft approximately this size. For the Phenom 100, we went from design on paper to certification in approximately three years. If you look at the Phenom 100 and the size of the VTOL vehicle, you start getting some really close parallels.

Safety also comes from building it for the mission. And that is specific to not just simply building it to perform one time a day, but building a product that is commercial aviation grade that can operate 14 routes a day, 363 days a year (because everyone needs a day off) and for a large number of years. That reliability and safety goes back to the business model, because if you’re able to build something that reliable, then it reduces the worry you have over operational availability and maintenance. Everything is very linear and understood, and that allows us to bring an affordable and safe product to the market.

EmbraerX recently launched its Beacon platform for maintenance services, which has been described as “Uber for AOG.” What was the goal behind launching Beacon, and what makes it different from other digital maintenance platforms on the market?

I think that the idea behind Beacon and a lot of what EmbraerX is doing is not just simply looking at the current challenges, but looking at the challenges for aviation in the future. We saw AOG as a tremendous challenge to operators and MROs because the relationship between operator and maintainer was very ad hoc, or it was completely captured so that there was a huge inefficiency in the system. So instead of having a way of logging and recording all the interactions, maintenance and support, we said, “If there was a dynamic way of understanding a maintenance challenge, either periodic or—in the case of AOG—acute, how do you manage that?” Particularly when your plane is not at a facility where you have a maintenance presence.

We listened to operators (both 135 as well as commercial), MROs, mechanics and parts dealers on the secondary market, and they all said it’s a very inefficient market, and it’s still handled with telephones and paper and relationships. Being able to systematize that far more efficiently was the goal of Beacon.

What we found through a lot of our early work—and I believe there are going to be some announcements in the relatively near future associated with customers—is that we have been able to reduce the economic cost of the operation for AOG. We’ve created better opportunities for MROs, because a lot of times if the MRO doesn’t have available mechanics or tools, there is no other opportunity, so the AOG just continues. [We’re] able to create those opportunities for operators, MROs and, ultimately, mechanics and parts suppliers by creating greater efficiency in the system. We’re reducing AOG, parts overhead and creating a lot more flexibility overall. So we’re not just trying to solve for Embraer aircraft, we’re trying to solve a broader problem. I think Beacon is taking a lot of what is best from Silicon Valley, but applying Embraer know-how, because you have to have that combination. You can’t just be four kids in a dorm room and understand this by talking to five people. You need to actually understand it on almost a DNA level.

Aside from its launch customer, JetSuiteX, EmbraerX is inviting early adopters to join the Beacon platform. What benefits would being an early adopter provide, and what kind of customer interest is your company seeing so far?

The interest for the early adopter is that if you have AOG problems, we want to help you solve those problems. We are working with each individual customer to address their own unique needs associated with AOG.

I can’t share specific information about customer interest just yet. There’s always a challenge when you have a lot of interest, and we are just trying to bring the product to market with the customers that are most engaged, that are really leaning into the relationships and are forward thinking about their businesses. We’ve been really fortunate with the people that we’ve worked with so far that they get it and it’s a developing process. We’re not looking at these people as customers, we’re looking at these people as partners in solving a problem. The software is just a methodology in solving that problem.

We’ve had a tremendous amount of response from organizations that realize there’s a lot of opportunity in moving away from old ways of thinking and that we have to have these gigantic staffs and a lot of overhead. If we’re able to refine their pipeline and their workforces and really be more efficient, customers are happier and their employees are happier.

One of the reasons why I think Beacon is uniquely positioned is because it’s coming from an OEM that is also in small part an operator because of our fleet that we fly for Executive. It’s really hard to get this inside knowledge, so even as an operator, if you created it for yourself you wouldn’t have the OEM understanding. The Beacon team was the “inside outsiders”—they were the people that understand the inside problems, but weren’t so close that they were only thinking of it from an operator, OEM or MRO perspective.

Which other emerging technologies is EmbraerX eyeing for new innovations in the near future?

We don’t start off with technology, we start off with problems. One of the biggest dangers that you have is to be in love with a technology and try to insert that technology into a solution. We start off with the challenge first and then we find the technologies, services, etc. that will solve that problem—and whether that’s a big enough problem worth solving.

In aviation, this is one of the most remarkable times to be in it. You have the electrification of aviation that’ll fundamentally change operations across the board, whether it’s for UAM, regional travel, etc. You have autonomy, which is a tremendous opportunity, and I think that a lot of people misunderstand autonomous systems as a convenience. It’s not—it’s a safety feature. I think that there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding with the general public associated with that because automotive makes it seem like a convenience tool. I believe that autonomy overall, particularly in aviation, is a safety tool. We’re not introducing a feature for autonomous flight that is not a safety system. If it doesn’t improve outcomes, we don’t do it.

For innovation in general, looking forward to the future of Embraer, it’s not just UAM—we’re looking at space. We’re a narrow company, but I think that there are a lot of opportunities to be an aerospace company. I think there’s a tremendous amount [of opportunities] in creating efficiency in the economic food chain of aerospace in general. There are a lot of opportunities for cargo, services and data to facilitate all that. We’re looking at all those problems and looking at the technologies and the feasibility of those technologies—not just simply as a show piece, because I think that if you can get a feeling about what we do versus what others do, everything we do has a practical application.

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