By Eric Peterson | Jul 25, 2022
Colorado Springs, Colorado / Moorpark, California
VTOL technology and aircraft
Innovation in aircraft is no small feat, and Graczyk credits PteroDynamics founder and CTO Val Petrov for his vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) concept: Transwing. "Val is a polymath, a very smart guy," says Graczyk. He started working on experimental aircraft when he was a kid."
Petrov had begun developing Transwing about a year before the company officially launched in 2017 to solve a longstanding problem in aviation. "Since the 1930s, the world has been trying to figure out how you take off and land without a runway but be able to have a very efficient cruise flight," explains Graczyk. "We all know how to make a rotorcraft, to make a helicopter, but they can't fly [far], they can't fly fast, they're not as efficient, they're incredibly complex and expensive to own and operate. How do you bridge the gap between those two things?"
Transwing does so with folding transverse wings that extend for flight but move back and rotate for takeoffs and landings.Graczyk says the platform, in comparison with other VTOL designs, has a smaller footprint that requires one third the space for takeoffs and landings; better agility and stability; higher efficiency and cruising speed; and can handle larger payloads.
Likening the rotor-driven takeoffs to a hummingbird flapping its wings and flight to that of an eagle, he notes that the system uses one-sixth the energy on cruise flight that it does on takeoffs, meaning the minimal time the Transwing needs for takeoff and landing is a big energy saver.
"If you need to take off and land without a runway and you need to fly any sort of distance horizontally, I think our Transwing platform is the best aircraft platform for all of those missions, whether they're linear inspections -- like power lines, pipelines, and rail -- whether they're cargo delivery to offshore oil and gas rigs and shipping vessels all the way up to larger manned aircraft."
The startup filed for a patent in late 2017 and came out of stealth mode in May 2018. A video of an unmanned Transwing prototype on a successful flight immediately went viral at a trade show in Los Angeles. "We were kind of the belle of the ball," says Graczyk. "It was so different from what everybody else was doing."
PteroDynamics is starting with a focus on unmanned inspection and cargo delivery applications. "We are focusing on defense applications and other government applications as well as commercial applications," says Graczyk.
The company is currently working on subscale prototypes to deliver necessary cargo for critical repair missions for the U.S. Navy; almost half of such shipments weigh less than a pound, making manned missions overkill.
Graczyk says there's a huge need to deliver cargo to large shipping vessels in a similar fashion, so the strategy will be to build similar aircraft for the commercial market. "There are more than 98,000 of these ships that are more than 100 gross tons floating around, doing commercial operations at any point in time, so it's a huge opportunity," he notes. "Right now, it's a very difficult process to take and make delivery on those ships. It's done with barges -- a fragmented, expensive, difficult thing -- so we can do that with our XP-4 aircraft, the same aircraft we're delivering to the Navy."
He adds, "The theme is: We're delivering high-value cargo that's time-sensitive to hard-to-reach places where they're currently paying a whole bunch of money for an inferior solution."
While the current head count is undisclosed, PteroDynamics has more than $2.5 million in state incentives in place to hire a target of 186 employees in Colorado over eight years.
While the company has remote offices in California and other locations, the growth will be centered on the 9,200-square-foot headquarters and engineering facility in Colorado Springs that opened in mid-2021. "That's where we do our core research and development, engineering, and we do our final assembly and flight tests there locally," says Graczyk.
Moving forward, the plan is to work with a network of contract manufacturers and other suppliers for "things like the airframe, the rotors, the motors, the flight computer, the battery pack," he adds. "Some are bespoke designs with tooling that we have built and some of them are common, off-the-shelf technologies."
PteroDynamics chose Colorado Springs over sites in Massachusetts, Texas, Kansas, California, and other states. "We looked at a lot of different factors, like corporate income taxes, personal income taxes, quality of life, cost of living, access to supply chain," says Graczyk. "Most importantly, though, was the ability to conduct as much flight testing as possible. We'd love to be in the air 360 days a year, so having the right ability to fly -- not too hot, not too cold, not too rainy, not too snowy -- and also access to the airspace."
The decision is paying off, he says, as Graczyk forecasts a bright future for the company. "In a market with 300-plus companies all doing one of four aircraft designs . . . none of those designs have any valid patent left," he says. PteroDynamics, conversely, has four patents -- and another four pending patents.
Adds Graczyk: "We control this. We think we've set up the right framework to really execute."
Challenges: "The only challenge is the regulatory environment: what the FAA does in the United States and what EASA does in Europe," says Graczyk. "You need to choose the right markets."
Opportunities: "The market is massive," says Graczyk. And it's growing: He says analysts have forecast the U.S. market for longer-range UAV cargo missions to jump from $100 million in 2022 to $1.1 billion in 2026, but the broader market is an order of magnitude larger.
Adds Graczyk: "We are looking to partner with companies that are conducting services and to sell them our aircraft at essentially our cost with a very modest markup, and then do revenue share with them so that we're aligning our interests with their interests."
Needs: Capital, says Graczyk. "We're looking for investors that share our perspective on the marketplace and see an opportunity in advanced air mobility and have value they can bring to our company beyond just money. I think it's easy for us to raise money. We have plenty of money in the bank, we have plenty of runway. We're raising money to capitalize on more opportunities sooner and to basically beef up our engineering team and get more products to market more quickly."
"We don't have unlimited capital," he adds. "We need to be smart. We need to get revenues and profits and positive cash flow so that can help us support our business. We are fundraising, but we don't want to rely on that. We want to be in control of our own destiny."