Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Where Uber's Going We Don't Need Roads

          By Brian Orlotti

Fort Worth TX based Bell Helicopter has unveiled a mock-up of the Nexus, a vertical take off and landing (VTOL) vehicle the company intends to build for Uber’s proposed air taxi service.

The Nexus offers an appealing vision for the future of air travel---as interpreted by Uber.

A hybrid-electric propulsion aircraft, the Bell Nexus will use six tilting ducted fans to vertically take off and land from a rooftop or helipad. It will seat five passengers and have a gross weight capacity of 272 kilograms.

As outlined in the January 7th, 2019 the Verge post, "Bell’s hybrid-electric flying car will be available via Uber by the ‘mid-2020s,’" the aircraft’s fans are hidden inside ducts rather than exposed to ease passengers’ safety concerns about being close to fast-spinning blades.

Bell chose hybrid-electric propulsion over a purely electric system so that the aircraft could fly further and carry more weight. Bell wants the Nexus to be versatile enough to serve other markets (i.e. military, cargo transport) should the anticipated market for urban air taxis not pan out.

Uber first announced introduced its plan for a ride-sharing service in urban airspace in 2016. The company laid out a vision of a network of small, electric, autonomous aircraft (dubbed the sexier name of ‘flying cars’ by some) shuttling passengers from rooftop to rooftop (or ground-based helipad) to alleviate gridlock.

Since then, at least 19 other firms are developing air taxis/flying cars. These include legacy manufacturers like Chicago IL based Boeing and Leiden, Netherlands based Airbus as well as small startups like Mountain View CA based Kitty Hawk (owned by Google founder Larry Page) and Webling Germany based Lilium Jet.

Anticipating regulatory and technical obstacles to its plans, Uber itself has made a point of partnering with aircraft makers, real estate firms, and government regulators to rally support.

For its part, Bell Helicopter is hoping to capture a futuristic market after decades as one of the top manufacturers of commercial and military VTOL aircraft (such as the V-22 Osprey and the upcoming V-280 Valor). Bell’s aim of having the Nexus flying in major cities by the mid-2020s may serve as a sign to investors that the company has its eye on the future.

Flying cars, long a staple of science fiction, now have the tantalizing potential to become science fact. Should the considerable obstacles to them be overcome, our cities may one day boast Blade Runner-like vistas of sleek vehicles zooming through the skies.

Here’s hoping those skies are still sunny with no murderous replicants on the prowl.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Still No Plan for SSL or GEOSats, But Maxar's CEO Howard Lance Has Resigned. Here's What it Means for Canada's MDA

          By Chuck Black

CEO Howard Lance has resigned from his job at Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies effective immediately and been replaced by Daniel Jablonsky, one of his Maxar colleagues who, since October 2017, has also acted as the president of the Westminster CO based Maxar subsidiary DigitalGlobe.

New Maxar CEO Jablonsky. Photo c/o Space Intel Report.

Jablonsky will also now sit on the Maxar board of directors, where he will join other DigitalGlobe alumni, including retired US General Howell M. Estes III, the current chairman of the Maxar board (who has also been the chair of the DigitalGlobe board since 2011) and Nick S. Cyprus, the chairman of the Maxar audit committee, who was also previously a director of DigitalGlobe.

The circling of the Maxar wagons around the DigitalGlobe subsidiary and it's lucrative US government Earth imaging contracts is simply the final, last ditch effort to keep the wheels twirling on the Maxar bus.

The DigitalGlobe assets will be protected. But the other Maxar business units, including Palo Alta CA based SSL and Brampton ON based MDA are far less central to Maxar's future.

As outlined in the January 14th, 2019 Space News post, "Maxar replaces CEO Howard Lance with DigitalGlobe president," Maxar has been trying for some time to figure out what to do with SSL manufacturing line for large communications satellites. According to the post:
Maxar sold off some of SSL’s valuable Silicon Valley real estate in early December and said it intended to decide by year’s end whether it would sell or shutdown its geostationary satellite manufacturing portion of SSL.
But so far nothing has moved forward, which tends to suggest that the real value of SSL, given the complete collapse of the large satellite market, is almost entirely wrapped up in its property holdings.

If this turns out to be true, its certainly bad news for Maxar, which will almost certainly need to try and unload SSL for whatever it can get.

As for Canada's MDA subsidiary, Maxar executives have always insisted that it's only as good as the sales it can generate from the Canadian government.

Since, as outlined in the January 1st, 2019 post, "2018: The Year in Space for Canada," MDA wasn't able to pull another "3rd generation Canadarm" sale out of the Federal government last year, MDA's market value might end up being less than anyone thought.

But a second measure of value could perhaps be MDA's collection of patents relating to the original construction of Canadarm based technology.

As outlined in the December 16th, 2016 post, "MDA says No Sale of Canadarm Technology to the US Government in NASA RESTORE-L, DARPA RSGS or "Any Other" Project," there is real concern on both sides of the border over whether or not MDA can even use components of Canadarm technology for independent NASA projects without the active participation and approval of the Canadian government.

An answer to this question of who owns the Canadarm patents will go a long way towards defining the true value of Canada's Maxar assets.

If Maxar can't move forward with high profile programs like the NASA RESTORE-L satellite servicing mission or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) project without the active participation of the Canadian government, the Canada's MDA might remain a Maxar asset.

Otherwise, all bets are off on MDA's future in Canada.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

Friday, January 11, 2019

For the Want of a Nail...

          By Henry Stewart

The recent loss of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies WorldView-4 satellite and the resulting catastrophic drop in Maxar stock prices, is a reminder to some that on-orbit satellite servicing is an idea whose time has come.

As outlined in the January 10th, 2019 The Verge post, "Fixing broken satellites in space could save companies big money," when your satellite breaks in space, "there isn’t an easy way to repair it."

Fortunately, "technology that’s currently on the horizon may change that." Or, it may not.

The post noted several organizations and corporations currently working to commercialize on-orbit satellite servicing technologies including  Broomfield CO based Altius Space Machines and Singapore based Astroscale Space Debris

The post also noted Maxar expertise in this area and its contribution to NASA's long-proposed but little funded RESTORE-L program, a "free-flying mission projected to launch in 2020 to perform in-orbit satellite servicing on an operational government asset in low-Earth orbit," according to Gunter's Space page.

As outlined in the March 19th, 2017 post, "American MDA Subsidiary Promotes "DEXTRE" for US as NASA RESTORE-L Satellite Servicing Budget Slashed," NASA cut funding for RESTORE-L from $133Mln US ($178Mln CDN) to $45Mln US ($60Mln CDN) in fiscal year 2018 and scaled back development work on the program.

The Restore-L program has been languishing in development "purgatory" ever since.

As mentioned many times before in this blog, Maxar and its predecessor organization, Richmond BC based MacDonald Dettwiler have been working for years to repurpose well understood Canadarm technologies for on-orbit satellite servicing but the stars never aligned and nothing ever moved forward.

Kinda reminds you of that old proverb, reminding us that seemingly unimportant acts or omissions can have grave and unforeseen consequences over the long-term.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

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