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Carlisle startup looks to create vertical-takeoff planes

Transcend Air CEO Gregory Bruell (left) and COO Peter Schmidt with a 1/5th scale prototype of the vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft they are designing.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Are you ready for battery-powered airplanes? They’re called eVTOLs — electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing planes — and some of the biggest companies on Earth are investing billions to build them.

But Gregory Bruell and Peter Schmidt think those companies are wasting their money. They’re fine with the VTOL part of the plan, but they want no part of those electric motors.

So their Carlisle startup, Transcend Air, is designing a VTOL that sticks with a traditional fossil-fuel-burning turbine but combines it with rotors that tilt up at takeoff, then straight ahead during level flight, like the US military’s Osprey aircraft. The goal is a five-passenger, $3.5 million aircraft that can land almost anywhere, like a helicopter, but can move almost as fast as a jet. Bruell and Schmidt claim their bird, the Vy 400, will fly at up to 400 miles per hour, a speed none of today’s electric VTOLs can match.

The Vy 400 will face off against all-electric planes from startups like California-based Joby Aviation. Joby has test-flown an aircraft that’s designed to carry five people on flights of up to 150 miles at speeds as high as 200 miles per hour. Joby has raised $1.6 billion from companies like Fidelity, Uber, Toyota, and JetBlue. There are dozens of other well-funded eVTOL companies out there, including Vermont’s Beta Technologies, which has raised half a billion dollars in investment cash.

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By contrast, Transcend Air is financed by about $4 million from the founders’ pockets and a few outside investors. But Schmidt thinks the decision to use old-school turbine power will give the Vy 400 an edge in speed and range.

“We cut the door-to-door time, Boston to New York ... to an hour,” said Schmidt, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate and former president of aircraft charter company Linear Air. Much of the time savings comes from the ability to launch from conveniently located heliports instead of making the slog to Logan Airport.

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Schmidt figures a one-way ticket would cost around $300, significantly more than the Delta Shuttle, but still well within corporate travel budgets. And because the Vy 400 would travel at around twice the speed of an electric VTOL, each aircraft could make more trips per day and generate more revenue.

Of course, battery-powered planes don’t spew greenhouse gases, but Transcend says it’s got an answer for that. The company is working with Prometheus Fuels, a California startup backed by shipping titan Maersk and carmaker BMW. Prometheus has developed a way to suck carbon from the atmosphere and combine it with hydrogen extracted from water to make a carbon-neutral liquid fuel. Using Prometheus as a fuel source would make the Vy 400 carbon-neutral, in theory, because Prometheus could extract as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as the aircraft would generate.

The Vy 400 is designed for relatively short commutes. “About 150 to 500 miles is our sweet spot,” said Transcend’s chief executive Bruell, a former computer networking engineer. He figures Boston-New York will be a prime market but thinks the most lucrative would be shuttle service between Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

So far, they’ve only built relatively small prototypes of the Vy 400. But they’ve signed a contract with Connecticut helicopter builder Kaman Corp. to manufacture the aircraft. The first full-sized model is due in about 18 months. And the US Air Force has chosen Transcend as one of 11 companies to participate in a research program to develop new military VTOL aircraft.

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Transcend Air has put together a team of aerospace veterans with previous experience at Kaman, aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney, and even Terrafugia. That’s the MIT spinoff, now owned by Chinese company Geely, best known for its efforts to develop a flying car capable of traveling through the air or on the Interstate.

Not everybody is ready to climb on board the Vy 400. Aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia, who’s been tracking the industry since the 1980s, doesn’t have much use for electric VTOLs, but he’s even less impressed by Transcend’s proposal. Aboulafia said that a similar aircraft from the Italian aerospace firm Leonardo has been under development since 2009 and still hasn’t entered service.

“Getting a machine with a turboshaft to take off vertically and fly at 400 knots?” Aboulafia said. “It’s been so long we’ve been trying, as a world, to accomplish that. And nothing in sight. Zero.”

Aboulafia doesn’t believe that a tiny company based in Bruell’s garage can achieve something that well-established aircraft makers have yet to accomplish. But Schmidt notes that in the 1970s, an experimental plane based on the same design reached speeds of over 375 knots, or more than 400 miles per hour.

“We know we can achieve 400 knots now, leveraging a half-century of technology advances,” Schmidt said.

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In 18 months, Transcend will get the chance to prove it.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeTechLab.