Opener BlackFly Debuts at Oshkosh
By Kenneth I. Swartz
On July 12, Opener shocked the world by announcing that its BlackFly was the first US- and Canadian-qualified fixed-wing ultralight eVTOL. The company showed stunning video and off-the-charts performance. Here’s the inside story.
On Oct. 5, 2011, Canadian engineer and entrepreneur Marcus Leng flew an eight-rotor tandem-wing electric aircraft from the front yard of his house and became convinced that electric vertical flight had a great future. This aircraft — initially dubbed the “SkyKar Rebel” — was apparently the world’s first fixed-wing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) flight (see www.evtol.news/evtol-timeline).
That was the beginning of Opener’s stealth development of the BlackFly personal air vehicle, which wasn’t revealed until this summer. With great fanfare on July 12, Opener unveiled its website and a high-quality video showing piloted and unpiloted BlackFly eVTOL aircraft flying low over the spectacular mountain scenery, taking off and landing in meadows, hovering above lakes and parked on the seashore of northern California.
Ten days later, Opener was ready to meet the aviation public in the EAA Innovation Showcase at Oshkosh where three of the four generations of the BlackFly eVTOL aircraft were on display: the Rebel, v2 and v3 (detailed characteristics of each, as well as the v1, are available on eVTOL.news). That’s where VFS met Opener founder and CEO Marcus Leng, as well as Opener director and technical advisor Alan Eustace, to learn more about the company and BlackFly.
Marcus Leng got his recreational pilot’s license when he was 18 in 1978 and his motor vehicle license a year later, which “reflected my priorities at the time.”
After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Toronto in 1983, Leng worked in the Ontario aerospace industry and with multinational companies for several years. Then he changed career direction in 1986 and founded a custom urethane foam manufacturing, which became one of the largest companies of its kind in North America before he sold it in 1996 and “retired” at the age of 36.
Leng was working on a different aviation project in the summer of 2009, “when it became apparent that there was going to be a convergence of three technologies that would make it possible for practical electric flight. These were the power density of batteries, the energy density of motors, and the control associated with IMUs [inertial measurement units] used for … DIY drones.”
“You could see a convergence was going to take place, but the technology wasn’t there yet,” said Leng.
The insight led Leng to design and build a proof-of-concept eVTOL aircraft, which he called the SkyKar Rebel, at his rural home in Warkworth, Ontario, about 65 miles (105 km) northeast of Toronto.
“The problem was that there was no one working in the space, so everything had to be done on first principles, with a lot of pure physics and engineering,” said Leng.
The electric aircraft was built with off-the-shelf components, “including Styrofoam from Home Depot, carbon composite materials from a local boating supply company, and wooden chopsticks were used to attach the wings to the fuselage.”
The eight electric motors were extensively modified to produce enough power with “an expensive battery purchased in the United States … and the control system was designed, built and programmed by myself.”
In September 2011, Leng spent a few weeks fine-tuning the control system while the aircraft was tied to a trailer. Then, on Oct. 5, he made the first and only flight from his front yard, “which demonstrated excellent controllability.” The aircraft “had no redundancy of any sort,” so the flight was restricted to about 3 ft (1 m) above the ground.
Nevertheless, Leng had achieved the first manned flight of a fixed-wing all-electric VTOL aircraft and the experience left him convinced that the emerging technology would have a bright future. The next day, Leng flew down to the Bahamas and while on vacation wrote a business plan for an electric aviation company that would operate in “stealth mode … until we were ready to show the technology to the general public.”
When he returned to Canada, the eVTOL project moved from Leng’s “basement, living room and kitchen” to a small office in the lakeside town of Cobourg, Ontario, where the startup received early support from the Northumberland Community Futures Development Corporation, a local innovation agency.
The first eVTOL aircraft developed in Cobourg was also the first to carry the BlackFly name, but was nicknamed “the strutted vehicle” because of the diagonal struts connecting the wings and open cockpit fuselage.
Leng said a guiding principal throughout the design process has been safety, with the goal of being “safe to the level of general aviation.”
The next two aircraft were developed in Cobourg and designated the BlackFly v1. The team made a single unmanned tethered flight in August 2014 with serial number 001 (registration number C-IKLT). “We did one flight in the back of the facility in Cobourg and then relocated to California,” said Leng.
The move to Palo Alto in September 2014 coincided with the reorganization of the company as Opener, Inc., “to pursue an unencumbered and accelerated development timeline.”
Moving to Silicon Valley attracted a number of strategic backers, including Google co-founder Larry Page, who founded Zee.Aero in 2010 (later merged into his second eVTOL company, Kitty Hawk) to develop eVTOL aircraft.
Opener used BlackFly v1 primarily to demonstrate that “we could do stable hovers with a 200 lb [90 kg] payload for two minutes without having any stress on the propulsion system,” and the company achieved this in February 2015.
The second BlackFly v1 (serial 002, C-IZNN) flew for the first time in California on Aug. 11, 2015. It was then used to expand the flight envelope by making an unprecedented 12.7-mile (20.4 km) flight (unpiloted) before the two v1 prototypes were retired.
Opener next developed the BlackFly v2, producing 12 aircraft in the series to perfect the structural design; the last two were fully instrumented for piloted flight. (The US Federation Aviation Administration, FAA, doesn’t require registration of ultralight aircraft under FAR Part 103. See “Kitty Hawk Flyer Enters Service,” Vertiflite, July/Aug 2018.)
Like the other models, the v2 is a tandem-wing aircraft with two fixed wings that do not move and eight electric motors with fixed pitch propellers. v2 had four sets of elevons installed at the wing tips.
Early in development, a keel was added to the fuselage to simplify the design, eliminate the need for a landing gear and allow the aircraft to operate easily from grass, water, snow, ice and even asphalt. The carbon fiber fuselage of v2 is made in three parts comprising left and right fuselage halves and a keel that is bonded together.
Leng said that development of v2 was evolutionary, with insights from the test program leading to design changes on the next aircraft in the series. Most of these refinements were structural and not apparent externally.
The first BlackFly v2 flew unpiloted on Feb. 11 2016, and made its first 30-mile (48 km) flight with a 200-lb (90 kg) payload in November 2016. By September 2017, the fleet had accumulated a total of 10,000 miles (16,100 km) — in flights of 30 miles or longer — at this payload.
Then, on March 19, 2017, Leng made the first piloted flight of the BlackFly in rural California. “It was incredible!,” says Leng recalling the first flight. “Smooth, assertive, easy to fly and instantly responsive to all control inputs. I was also stunned at how similar it was to our sim training. Indistinguishable, except for the better depth perception of the real fight.”
By July, a total of seven people had flown the v2, including Leng.
Leng said that the development of BlackFly v2 was successful from a structural design perspective, but the aerodynamics required further attention.
This led to the development of v3, a pre-production aircraft with a much more aerodynamic fuselage; it flew for the first time (unpiloted) on Oct. 20, 2017 and immediately demonstrated significant improvements in both range and endurance.
An inspection of v3 at Oshkosh revealed that the fuselage had a much deeper keel than v2 and the structure was modified to make it easier to remove and replace the wings for ground transportation.
How It Flies
Photos and videos of the BlackFly in flight show the aircraft hovering with the propellers parallel to the ground (and the fuselage tilted backwards) as well as in cruise flight with the wings parallel to the ground (and the fuselage tilted forwards).
Leng said that BlackFly can take off vertically, or with an extremely short takeoff run of 1–3 ft (up to 1 m) it can ascend vertically or at 35 degrees, 45 degrees or 70 degrees following a diagonal flight path. “If you take off at 45 degrees, you are already in what we define as cruise control mode, and if you takeoff at a steeper angle you are going to be in our hover control mode.”
The eight propellers, using distributed electric propulsion (DEP), are mounted upstream of the wing’s leading edge and function as high-lift propellers to augment lift and provide the small wings with significant low speed performance at various angles.
The cockpit controls consist of a fly-by-wire joystick with a thumb stick.
“If you are hovering and you want to transition to cruise control, all it requires is for you to pull [the] joystick forward and pull the trigger back … and as you pass 45 degrees you transition right into cruise and the aircraft will automatically hold altitude during the transition,” said Leng.
“The thumb stick is your altitude control and, in hover, the joystick gives you the orientation of the aircraft. If you let go of the joystick, the aircraft freezes in location, independent of what the winds are doing. If you push up on the thumb stick, you increase the altitude, with the rate of ascent proportional to how far you push the thumb stick.”
“We are a completely vertically integrated company where raw materials come into our company and finished aircraft leave,” said Leng.
“There has been a continuous evolution of our propulsion system including the batteries, motor controllers, the motors themselves, as well as the propellers. As we keep developing different versions of the aircraft, there are different versions of the propulsion system.” For example, Opener makes its own electric motors, which weigh 4 lb (1.8 kg) and generate 134 lb (61 kg) of thrust.
Growth requires more engineers, and “we came to Oshkosh because we are looking for more really bright, capable, hardworking engineers and software developers,” said Leng, adding that it was a challenge to recruit new people when no one knew about the company and its products.
At Oshkosh, Opener director and technical advisor Alan Eustace took the lead in promoting BlackFly to aviation enthusiasts and potential customers.
“I believe that electric aviation is the future of aviation and when I heard about this project [about four years ago] I was unbelievably excited,” said Eustace.
“A friend of mine, who was also an early investor, came to me and told me what Marcus was doing and thought that electric aviation and vertical flight was actually possible. This was a shock to me because aviation is the most demanding of applications for batteries and electric motors … so I was skeptical … but when I saw what they built … I realized it was not only possible, but it is practical and could change aviation,” he continued.
“What’s exciting now is that the new battery technology has much higher power density than previous batteries, the motors are much more powerful, composite technology allows you to build a much lighter aircraft, and new inertial measurement units or IMUs provide a level of control that can support autonomous flight and piloted flight, but protects the envelope and makes the aircraft incredibly easy to fly. That combination is very special,” said Eustace.
Eustace is no stranger to aviation or advanced technology. A lifelong pilot, Eustace flies fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, parachutes and paragliders. On Oct. 24, 2014, Eustace set the world record for the highest-altitude free-fall jump from 135,889 ft [41.4 km]. Carried aloft in a spacesuit attached to a gas balloon, he broke the record set by Felix Baumgartner in 2012.
As a computer scientist, Eustace worked for Digital, Compaq, and HP’s Western Research Laboratory, before joining joined Google in 2002, then a four-year-old startup. There he served as Senior Vice President of Engineering and as Senior Vice President of Knowledge until retiring in 2015.
“Right now there are a lot of possible missions. I’d like to separate the capabilities of the aircraft from what you are currently legally allowed to do today” from a regulatory perspective, he said. “As far as the capabilities of the aircraft, it’s almost boundless. Depending on geography you can go 25 miles or 50 miles [40 or 80 km] in range, you can do a vertical takeoff and landing, and you can do autonomous flight. From a pure capability point of view, this is an incredible aircraft, piloted or not piloted.
“But then you have to put that into a regulatory structure that doesn’t even know about electric aviation,” he explained. “We just announced a couple weeks ago an ultralight aircraft with Opener capability that has never been envisioned by the FAA, so it is going to take a while for them to catch up to where the regulations will allow you, and permit you and even encourage you to go into areas that they previously didn’t even envision.
“First we have to get an aircraft that has the safety characteristics and range that we require internally, before we start selling it to the public, but we are pretty close.” As a result, Eustace believes the first customers for BlackFly will be “pilots who love to fly … and people who have always dreamed of flying since childhood, but never had the chance.” BlackFly will provide an opportunity for pilots “to fly slow and experience what flying was meant to be … a beautiful free flying kind of thing.”
Eustace said that “the price of this will be lower than any other aircraft and the capabilities are really high and it’s almost free to fly,” adding that a 25 mile (40 km) flight might consume $1 of electricity. In other media interviews, Opener said the price of BlackFly will be comparable to an SUV, though that covers a broad price range.
As the market matures, Eustace expects to see BlackFly used for point-to-point business commuting and the aircraft purchased as a kit, so the aircraft can get an experimental type rating.
Several competing eVTOL manufacturers stopped by the Opener booth at Oshkosh. “Competition in this space is good,” said Eustace, adding as all the different eVTOL companies get their projects launched, “there is going to be a tidal wave of new aircraft and new capabilities … and the fun is just beginning.”