AIN Blog: Aerospace Technology Takes Center Stage at Pitch Session

 - March 21, 2016, 2:49 PM
Frontline Aerospace's MicroFire recuperator places a heat exchanger in a turbine engine exhaust duct to recover lost energy.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a pitch session to venture capitalists and angel investors by aerospace entrepreneurs and startups. The session was held by Starburst Accelerator, a company that helps provide seed funding for aerospace, defense and security startups, at Northrop Grumman facilities in Los Angeles. I’d never been to a pitch event, so I thought it would be worthwhile, and some of the companies were giving presentations on intriguing aerospace technologies.

Everyone attending was under strict orders to relinquish any type of cellphone, laptop, recording device, camera and so on or risk getting kicked out of the auditorium. A large pile of electronic devices pasted with identifying sticky notes covered a table outside the auditorium. Many of us commented how odd we felt without instant access to our devices, but that’s life in the top-secret government contracting aerospace world.

The pitches were for the most part a fascinating glimpse into the world of coming aerospace technology, and Northrop Grumman deserves credit for hosting the event so that its technologists can try to learn what they might be missing. 

One notable pitch was from a Los Angeles company named Daqri, which manufactures the Smart Helmet, a “wearable human-machine interface.” The helmet not only delivers work instructions to the wearer but also is equipped with up to nine cameras, including infrared, that can be used to spot problems in machinery. For example, the IR camera can “see” hot spots in fluid-transfer piping, and the visual camera can directly take readings from gauges and send them back to experts who can direct the repair process. The Smart Helmet could be enormously useful when troubleshooting aircraft systems.

A company called BridgeSat aims to solve the voracious appetitefor data transmission and the lack of available RF bandwidth for low-earth-orbit satellites. The company’s solution is laser communication, which it estimates could provide 1.5 terabytes per day of data transfer using 30 ground stations placed at high-latitude locations around the globe. BridgeSat expects to begin offering 10-gigabits-per-second transmit speeds by the first quarter of next year.

Frontline Aerospace offered a technology more directly applicable to the aviation industry: performance-improvement retrofits that could cut fuel consumption by up to 40 percent on a typical turboshaft engine, the Rolls-Royce 250. The company’s IsoCool technology runs water through compressor stator vanes to lower the heat generated during the compression cycle. The MicroFire recuperator technology places a heat exchanger in the exhaust duct to recover lost energy. It does this by removing heat from the engine exhaust, then “transfers it to the compressed engine air before combustion,” according to Frontline. “Depending on specific implementation, this can improve the overall thermal efficiency of the engine by as much as 100 percent.” Frontline plans to offer these technologies as retrofits, although it will first have to get them certified. It has done some trials in a test cell.

There were other pitches, including a tiny electric propulsion module from Phase Four. The unit is designed for small satellites, and it could even be used to decelerate satellites so they would burn up in the atmosphere at end of life. Apellix introduced its tethered industrial drones, which could be used to paint buildings or even airplanes and also could be adapted for aircraft ground deicing. Battery power isn’t a problem for the Apellix drone because electrical power is sent through the tether, as is the fluid being applied.

It was fun to be able to see how this whole technology/finance pitching system works, but unfortunately it wasn’t as exciting as I expected. Maybe I’ve been watching too much “Shark Tank” on TV, but the pitches were somewhat lacking in genuine showmanship. Only a few of the companies brought actual hardware to illustrate their pitches, and a small number actually asked the assembled finance crowd for money. No one stepped away from the podium and engaged with the audience.

Nevertheless, it was encouraging to see small entrepreneurial companies exploring new technologies, and larger companies such as Northrop Grumman being willing to host an event like this instead of believing that it has all the keys to the technology kingdom. Starburst Accelerator deserves credit for making events like these happen and for greasing the wheels of future technology developments in aerospace.