Drones are changing photography, but they’re also making it easier and cheaper to perform surveillance, monitor fields and crops, and inspect infrastructure. The problem is that most drones, even ones used in these commercial and industrial settings, wind up facing the same big problem: short battery life.
California-based startup Impossible Aerospace says it’s figured out a solution. The company — which came out of stealth on Monday by announcing a $9.4 million funding round, partially backed by Airbus’ venture wing — isn’t claiming any wild battery breakthrough or promising some flashy new-look dodecacopter concept. Instead, the company says it simply rethought the way drones are designed and built — apparently to great results. Impossible says its first drone, which is about the size of a DJI Phantom, can last up to two hours in the air, far longer than the 20- to 40-minute flight times offered by most other consumer or professional solutions.
It’s the kind of advancement that could radically change the businesses and industries that already rely on drones to get things done. And despite coming out of the shadows for the first time this week, the company’s CEO Spencer Gore has already set his sights on a far bigger target: the airline industry.
Impossible’s solution for squeezing more battery life — and, therefore, more flight time — out of a similarly sized package is relatively simple: instead of relying on a separable battery pack that gets snapped on or slotted into the drone, all the individual battery cells are tucked throughout its structure. The battery is not just in the drone; it basically makes up the entire thing. This means more battery cells can be used, but there’s also less non-battery weight to offset, which leads to longer flight times.
The idea for this ground-up redesign of how drones are built was inspired by Gore’s time at Tesla, where he spent years working on the battery design for cars like the Model X and Model 3. One of the things that has set Tesla apart, he says, is how the company designed its cars around their batteries. Tesla helped popularize the so-called “skateboard” model for electric vehicles, where the car’s entire battery pack is integrated into the floor of the vehicle and connected to the wheels and axles. Then, the rest of the car gets built on top. It’s a popular choice now; Volkswagen, for example, plans to spend billions of dollars on developing its own similar platform for its future lineup of electric vehicles.
This was a radical change to the way electric vehicles were previously made, Gore says. Other automakers “would start by taking a gas car and take out the engine, they’d take out the fuel tank, and replace it all with batteries and [electric] motors,” he says. “But you were left with something that had quite a small battery pack in the wrong place, [with] a lot of extra weight, and it would drive for maybe 80 miles on a charge, at best.”
When he realized the same problem was plaguing the burgeoning drone industry, Gore saw an opportunity.
“We started by asking ourselves, ‘If you’re trying to make this electric powertrain — this battery — fly for as long as possible, how would we shape it? How would we build it? And how do we add on as little material as possible after that?’” he says. “It took us in a completely different design direction where what we’re left with is quite a bit more of a flying battery than it is a drone with a battery inside of it.”
The final version Impossible Aerospace arrived at is a quadcopter that looks similar to others on the market, but it has between four to six times the total flight time that’s typically possible. Its performance doesn’t suffer, either. The US-1 tops out at 42 miles per hour and has a range of nearly 50 miles. The company is selling the drone bare for $7,500 or with a thermal camera package made by Flir for $10,000. (The drone fitted with the camera is only rated for about an hour and 10 minutes of flight time, according to Impossible Aerospace’s website.) Gore says he expects the majority of customers to be from the fields of private security, police, fire and rescue, or research.
In addition to the obvious value of a dramatic increase in battery life, Gore is also pushing a parallel narrative to woo customers to his company’s first drone, which is that Impossible Aerospace is a US drone company through and through. With China’s DJI dominating the drone market, Gore says there’s a hunger for some homegrown competition — especially because of recent security concerns about the presence of Chinese tech companies in the US.
“Whether we realize it or not, we have given aerial access through millions of these drones to all the nation’s key infrastructure to a Chinese company that the Department of Homeland Security assessed with high confidence is sending user data back to Chinese servers,” he says, referring to a 2017 memo from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that alleged that DJI’s drones might be passing information to China. (DJI has rebutted the claims.)
Impossible offers professionals a solution that Gore says is not only designed and built in the US, but it also uses no off-the-shelf components. Only the battery cells are sourced. Impossible makes its own powertrain, motors, and it has even developed its own battery management system that Gore says is “automotive grade.” (Vertical integration is another lesson Gore says he learned at Tesla.)
Ultimately, Gore says he wants to turn Impossible Aerospace into a company that makes full-sized electric aircraft that are capable of shuttling passengers around.
“The US-1 is more than just a product. It’s also a proof of concept of a new way of designing aircraft,” he says. The same thing he believes will set Impossible Aerospace’s small drone apart from the competition — its battery-first design — will also give the company an advantage at larger scales, even over the glut of well-funded competition that has spent the last few years flaunting flashy designs for electric aircraft.
Besides, Gore says, most of the companies focused on electric aircraft right now are only thinking about short-range flight. “As far as I’m concerned, the world is fine if that doesn’t happen,” he says. “Impossible Aerospace has a mission to build the highest performance aircraft that can possibly be built with electric propulsion. And our endgame is to become the aircraft manufacturer of the 21st century.”