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Impossible Aerospace Unveils Electric Drone It Says Has Record 2-Hour Flight Time, And Dream To Change Aviation

An electric aircraft startup, Impossible Aerospace, has emerged from stealth mode with a quadcopter drone that it says can stay aloft for two hours, roughly four times as long as other electric drones, and $9.4 million in Series A funding from Airbus and two Silicon Valley venture capital firms.
The small Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company says it’s achieved dramatically longer flight time through techniques it’s developed to package conventional lithium ion battery cells as structural elements, allowing it to cram more battery into the drone at an equivalent weight.
"It's not so much an aircraft as it is a flying battery,” says founder and CEO Spencer Gore, who previously worked as a battery engineer at Tesla.  

Gore has bigger ambitions, seeing the drone as a proof of concept for his approach, which he believes can scale up to make longer-range electric passenger aircraft with today’s low energy-density batteries.
The drone is optimized for persistence in hovering flight and surveillance -- with a maximum 4.4-pound payload of optical or thermal sensors it can stay aloft for 90 minutes, says Gore. The company is aiming at government customers -- law enforcement, fire and search and rescue.
The drone’s name, the US-1, is a reference to its second key product feature: it will be made in the United States. That could make it compelling to U.S. authorities concerned about the security of data collected by the Chinese drones that dominate the market, led by DJI.
“Focusing on the government market first is very smart,” says Philip Finnegan, an analyst at Teal Group who tracks the UAV industry. “If they can achieve these flight times with a payload, that is impressive and certainly positions them well.”
Teal Group estimates the U.S. civil government market for drones could be worth roughly $300 million from 2018 to 2027.
Pricing starts at $7,500 for the base model of the US-1, with a thermal package starting at $,9500 without a camera.
With the corporate graveyards littered with U.S. drone makers that couldn’t compete with cheaper Chinese products, aiming for the government market has another benefit, says Finnegan: “Government agencies are more interested in paying for performance than commercial customers, who are purely interested in price.”
Gore's plan is to take the money the company makes from drones and plow it into his main goal: development of larger zero-emissions electric aircraft.

One of the criticisms of Uber’s urban air taxi project and similar efforts to develop electric aircraft is that they depend on the presumption that batteries will become much more powerful in the next five to 10 years. Impossible Aerospace’s approach presumes that advancements in battery technology will remain slow.
We all want them to happen and when they do, they tend to double the energy density of batteries, not increase them 10 times,” says Gore. “So in the absence of breakthroughs if we really want electric aircraft of all sizes that can fly useful ranges and carry meaningful payloads, essentially everything in the aircraft needs to be made of batteries to get a high battery cell mass fraction, including all the primary structural elements.”
At the maximum, depending on payload, about 70% of the weight of the US-1 is battery, compared to roughly 20% for competing drones of a similar size, Gore says. Unladen it weighs 14 pounds and measures 2 feet by 2 feet.
Gore is coy as to whether the company has begun experimenting with larger aircraft -- “it’s not impossible” -- as well as whether it’s collaborating with the giant plane maker Airbus, whose venture arm took part in a $9.4 million Series A round of investment announced Monday. “We’re honored by their investment; it’s validation that what we’re doing is important,” he says.
Bessemer Venture Partners led the round, which also includes fresh funding from Eclipse Partners, which participated in a seed round. Impossible has raised a total of roughly  $11 million.
It’s going to use the cash infusion to expand its 16-member team to begin fulfilling orders for the US-1 in the fourth quarter.
Gore, 26, studied aerospace engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before switching his major to engineering physics his junior year as a protest over the curriculum. “I didn’t want to take a class on gas turbine propulsion,” he says, “I wanted to study electric propulsion and the system wasn’t set up to do that.”
Planning to work on space travel, Gore interned at NASA and SpaceX, but shifted gears out of environmental concerns.
“There was a moment when I realized that if you were to travel in outer space and look back at the planet and realize that you spent your whole career trying to get there and you’ve left the biosphere in ruins, you may not be terribly fulfilled,” he says.
After graduating, he worked at Tesla from 2015 for a year and a half as a design engineer on batteries for the Model S and Model 3. He says he came to believe that drone and electric aircraft developers were making the same mistakes that automakers did initially trying to make electric cars. “Design an airframe and then add a propulsion system and avionics and you do the weights and balances, and at the very end, they would begrudgingly add a battery to the aircraft,” he says.
Gore says he only reluctantly started Impossible Aerospace after trying to give away his ideas.
“I started by going to all the drone makers and aircraft manufacturers I could find and was banging my hands on the table explaining how you could build a longer-range aircraft, and nobody was doing it.”
 Impossible Aerospace’s patent application outlines methods to package battery cells between planar substrates that can act as load-bearing structures, and can be curved, like aircraft fuselages, wings or tails. If the prospect of traveling inside a tube packed with batteries sounds alarming given the FAA’s advocacy for a ban on large electronics with lithium batteries in checked baggage due to fire risks, Gore says it’s not a stretch to engineer safe lithium-ion battery packs today, and the greater energy density of jet fuel (about 40 times) makes it far more flammable.
“If you look at the auto industry, the only time you see a battery fire is in a high-speed collision, and that’s not something that happens to aircraft often,” he says. “I don’t think that the fire risk is what stops electric aircraft, it’s instead trying to overcome the massive advantage in energy density that conventional fuel provides.”
Gore sees success as imperative given aviation’s disproportionate contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and the expansion in air travel anticipated over the next few decades -- the global commercial airline fleet is forecast to more than double to 50,000 planes by 2040.
“We really need to be thinking more creatively about how to make a zero emissions aircraft, and today with the portfolio of technologies that exist, that means making flying batteries, very very large flying batteries.”
I help direct our coverage of autos, energy and manufacturing, and write about aerospace and defense.