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Endless encounters with swarms of bees.
This is the cacophonic scenario we could possibly rush towards when investors pour heroic sums of money into companies developing better and better drones and their bigger cousins, vertical take-off and landing passenger vehicles. Because while the underlying technology of these machines has improved at an impressive rate, the simple fact remains that these aircraft, large or small, make a lot of noise and not much has been done to contain it. If a drone ruined your peaceful day at the beach, put your nerves up in front of 10,000 flying taxis above your head.
A startup called Whisper Aero, which is first publishing its plans, feels it is well on its way to solving this noise problem. The company was founded in mid-2020 by Mark Moore, a former NASA engineer who became an executive in the once-bustling aircraft division of Uber Technologies Inc. While Moore refuses to reveal in detail what he found out of concerns about intellectual property protection, he believes Whisper has come across a new “engine” design that will lead to consumer drones all the way up too large cars in the background noise of a city while flying.
“Half of the people think drones are cool and half are so upset,” said Moore. “You’re upset because there’s this really annoying source of noise that shouldn’t be there. It sounds like a cuisinart on the fly and it really makes people uncomfortable. If you want the public to take on the idea that more and more of these things are popping up, you can’t piss them off and you can’t scare them. “
Few, if any, would be better suited to solving such a long-standing problem in this area. Moore spent 30 years in NASA’s research groups working on cutting-edge designs for drones and electric aircraft. In 2010, he published a paper that focused on the capabilities of all-electric aircraft that can take off and land vertically, and his research helped spark interest in what are known as eVTOL machines, which are used by dozens of startups today to be tracked. In 2017, Moore joined Uber Elevate to help Uber build a huge fleet of flying vehicles that could fly over traffic.
However, when the pandemic set in, Uber abandoned its science fiction plans last year and sold its Elevate technology to Joby Aviation, a Toyota-backed startup that was recently valued at $ 6.6 billion that some people consider view the most promising eVTOL contender. Rather than sticking with Joby, Moore chose to pursue ideas he’d tinkered with for five years to make quieter vehicles. He used some of his Uber money to buy a distressed resort in Crossville, Tennessee and set it up as Whisper’s remote headquarters and research and development center. “The bank made a foreclosure and I got a deal,” said Moore. “It’s 16 acres and has a lake with a nice beach and is right next to a great little airport.”
According to Moore’s count, around 400 companies are trying to manufacture eVTOL aircraft. Many of these vehicles are built by hobbyists and small teams, while a few dozen companies have been given substantial funding to really keep track of the market. Most of the early versions of these vehicles look similar. They are basically small airplanes with electric motors that run between four and twelve propellers. The big race at the moment is to build working prototypes and have the vehicles certified as flight-safe by the regulatory authorities.
Moore believes the noise from this first wave of eVTOL vehicles will limit their success. Even though they’re quieter than helicopters, the planes still create that swarm of bees. Part of the problem, as Moore sees it, is that companies refused to deal with the noise in order to bring aircraft to market. “Everyone takes the path of least resistance,” he said.
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Moore, though reluctant to describe Whisper’s technology, said the company is developing a new type of engine design. This includes a novel way of looking at propellers, engines, control systems, and how all of these components fit into a vehicle’s airframe. Whisper has experimented with its technology on drones under a contract with the Air Force. Engineers take their prototypes to the resort’s tennis and basketball courts and surround them with microphones to measure the noise signature. So far, the technology has worked so that the humming of the devices fits into the environment. “Right now the industry is in the propeller age,” says Moore. “We’ll take it with us into the age of the electric jets.”
Whisper will reveal more about its technology in the coming months, Moore said as its patents go through the approval process. The company plans to start selling its first products by 2023 and expects to be bought by drone manufacturers. From there, it wants to sell the engines to eVTOL manufacturers, which will not be an easy task. Companies will likely redesign their aircraft and may need to recertify them from regulators due to the new technology. According to Whisper, the technology can eventually be transferred to other industries.
Seongkyu Lee, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California-Davis, is skeptical that there will be an immediate breakthrough in noise abatement. Drones and eVTOL aircraft create a type of higher frequency noise – known as broadband noise – that is particularly annoying to humans. “The next steps in noise reduction will be gradual,” said Lee. “I don’t think we can achieve a 10 or 20 decibel reduction in one fell swoop. But if we want to move these things to the neighborhoods, we have to figure out how to turn them down. “
To date, Whisper, which has 11 employees, has raised $ 7.5 million from investors including Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures. “Creating uncontrolled noise pollution for the vital future of electric aviation is a problem,” Downey said in a statement. “The future must be as considerate as it is convincing.”
Other investors are Menlo Ventures, Lux Capital, and Kindred Ventures. Shawn Carolan, a partner at Menlo Ventures, admits that Whisper faces many “tough technical issues” but believes almost every drone and eVTOL company will flock to the company’s products if they work as invoiced .
“Every now and then you see one of those things that I call the technological inevitability,” he said. “That has the potential to change the world dramatically.”
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