If you travel enough during the winter, you’ll inevitably encounter the dreaded announcement from the cockpit: “Uh, we’re all buttoned up and ready to go. We just need to wait for the de-icing trucks to come on over and treat the airplane.”
And if the plane waits in line too long before it is cleared for take-off, there can sometimes be a return to the terminal for a second spray-down with hot anti-freeze fluid. It’s an important step: ice or snow build-up on the wings can cause crashes.
As a graduate student studying finance at MIT, Alex Bratianu endured a few of those winter flight delays — including one that stretched out to nearly three hours. He started thinking about not just the passenger frustration with their winter travel being stalled, but also the costs to airlines. Working with a former chief financial officer of JetBlue, Bratianu put together an estimate of how much a half-hour de-icing delay costs airlines: anywhere from $10,000 to more than $20,000.
“What if,” he began to wonder, “we could build something similar to your car’s rear-window defroster, where you press a button, and any frost would go away?” To develop the technology that would answer that question, Bratianu and Ruben Toubiana, both trained as engineers, founded a startup called De-Ice four years ago, after finishing their graduate studies at MIT.
There have been plenty of attempts to introduce new technologies that would simplify the process of getting planes ready to fly in winter, from new kinds of coatings for the wing that would prevent snow and ice from building up, to giant hangars outfitted with infrared radiation panels that would generate enough heat to melt it off. And various university researchers have studied ways to leverage electricity to keep ice off aircraft, sometimes licensing their inventions to large companies. But glycol-based antifreezes, sprayed by specially-trained workers in bucket trucks, remains the preferred — and pricey — solution.
“There are lots of patents for de-icing that are very cool,” Bratianu says, “but they’re gathering dust.” One key: developing a system that doesn’t add too much weight to the aircraft.
De-Ice has so far been funded by grants and individual investors. The company is based in Somerville and has eight employees. Their approach, Bratianu explains, “leverages electromagnetic phenomena” to direct electrical energy along an aluminum or carbon-fiber aircraft wing. It doesn’t electrify the wing — “you could sleep on it,” he says — but it does melt snow and ice. And it only requires the installation of a device into the plane’s equipment bay, he says — the system doesn’t need to be installed when the plane is originally built. Bratianu says it would weigh less than 200 pounds; they haven’t yet settled on a price tag. (Using electromagnetic fields isn’t especially cutting-edge — they’re used to transfer electricity, for instance, from the base of your electric toothbrush to the toothbrush itself.)
“Think of an aluminum airplane wing as a 1,000-lane highway, and the cars on it as electrons,” Bratianu says. “You have heating whenever there’s traffic. We take this 1,000-lane highway, and create imaginary traffic control people” using electromagnetism, so that the wing heats up only where they want it to, on the front edge and the top. That’s where ice build-up can be most dangerous.
But isn’t it also dangerous to have electromagnetic energy rippling across the wing — which also contains flammable fuel? “Aircrafts are struck by lightning all the time, and it hits the wing,” Bratianu says, and that’s far more energy than De-Ice would be using. And, he adds, the technology would need to be certified as safe by the Federal Aviation Administration. Getting a meeting with the local FAA office was a crucial early step for the company, Bratianu says.
Also important was assembling a group of investors and advisors with airline industry experience. The former JetBlue CFO, John Owen, decided to put money into De-Ice because, he explains, “you can essentially solve a very large cost problem, a very big delay problem, and a very big environmental problem, all at once.” (Today’s antifreeze contains chemicals that can be harmful if they seep into groundwater.)
Another airline operations executive, Justin Tiplady, who works for a Canadian airline, also got involved as an early backer. “The system can be de-icing the plane while the airplane is also being fueled, loaded, and catered,” he says, rather than waiting until all those activities have been completed. And adding it to an aircraft would be a predictable expense for airlines, he says — rather than the fluctuating cost of paying more money for de-icing treatments during bad winters, and less during milder ones.
Different approaches to electrical de-icing have “been around for years, without a lot of traction,” says Bill Herp, CEO of Linear Air, an air taxi service based in Bedford. And, he notes, the path to marketplace success doesn’t just involve getting one FAA approval and suddenly selling to everyone: a technology needs to be certified for use in various model of airplanes, before it can be purchased and installed in that model of airplane.
The technology that De-Ice is developing “is hard,” says Eric Giler, a serial entrepreneur who is advising the company. But, he says, “that’s appealing for a technology venture that you want to protect and differentiate.” In other words, if you can tame the hard technology, you’ve got a good jump on any competitors. One challenge for De-Ice, however, could be hiring enough people with aviation industry experience in the Boston area; that workforce, Giler observes, “is in other parts of the country.”
As winter descends, De-Ice is out working to raise about $5 million in funding, and to sign deals with airlines in the US and Europe that will be willing to test its system.
How will you know if this small startup has succeeded, despite the odds? When it’s no longer a surprise that your plane takes to the sky, on time, in the midst of a steady snowstorm.