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The Fixer
  • 19 Jun 2021 07:01 PM
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The Fixer

By Robert W. Moorman
Vertiflite, July/August 2021

After 20 years in business, M4 Engineering has become the go-to software development and services provider for a host of aerospace and other companies.

M4 Engineering provides a multi-disciplinary design optimization process.(All M4 images except where noted.)

Like all start-ups, M4 Engineering took what work was available during its formative years in the early 2000s. The Long Beach, California-based company provided engineering services to Boeing and Airbus suppliers while simultaneously supporting new technology programs, such as developing a carbon-fiber door for commercial airliners and optimizing structures for rocket motors.

M4 was known initially as the firm that larger companies hired to fix problems with aircraft design, weight and operability. The early-on work helped M4 transition from a research and development (R&D) problem solver to a larger multi-faceted concern with expertise in design analysis, optimization, propulsion, thermal protection and other disciplines, as well as conceptual aircraft design.

Broadening its portfolio beyond the aerospace and defense fields was key to M4’s ongoing success in later years.

Composite structures are one of M4’s many core competencies.

“I think that’s really when we hit on the synergy between the R&D and engineering service-type projects,” said M4 Founder and CEO Dr. Myles Baker. “Today, we have a different mix of business from your typical engineering companies. And we’re looking at more forward-looking technologies that are not yet ready for prime time.”

M4’s public and government client list today spans aerospace, automotive, construction, energy production, theme park attractions and other sectors. NASA, GE, HITCO Carbon Composites, US Air Force and AeroVironment are among a long list of customers.

Innovation and flexibility are keys to M4’s continued success, said Baker.

M4 won a proposal recently from NASA to design lightweight composite fuel-storage cryotanks for launch vehicles. The contract resurrects a goal of NASA’s to launch payloads into space at a reduced cost. Back then, an uncrewed NASA/Lockheed Martin X-33, a half-scale prototype, was intended to prove that its full-scale VentureStar launch vehicle with aerodynamic, form-fitting tanks attached to the space plane could carry enough hydrogen and oxygen to achieve orbit. Unfortunately, the multi-lobed, composite, liquid hydrogen fuel tank failed during testing in 1999 and NASA concluded that the technology of the time was simply not advanced enough for such a design.

M4’s advanced modeling and simulation software tools can calculate flutter response of novel configurations, such as this lift-plus-cruise eVTOL design.

This time, M4 proposes a novel composite tank-and-aeroshell arrangement, using advanced stitched composite tanks, making integration into the airframe easier, while meeting the structural weight limits required for single-stage-to-orbit vehicles.

Electric Flight

Other companies have solicited M4’s services, including those involved in the advanced air mobility (AAM) sector, which includes electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

In 2018, M4’s Advanced Technology Group worked with Uber Elevate on its eVTOL common reference models (eCRMs) for this new class of aircraft. M4 developed a weight-prediction method for Uber’s eCRMs. Uber Elevate, the air taxi division of the ridehailing service, was sold in December to California-based Joby Aviation (see “Joby Transitions,” Vertiflite, Jan/Feb 2021).

M4 works extensively with academia. In January, M4 partnered with the University of California, San Diego-led team to propose assisting NASA with aeronautical research through the schools’ University Leadership Initiative (ULI). ULI gives the academic community an opportunity to support NASA’s research goals.

The team’s proposal selected for award was titled, “Rapid Development of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) Vehicle Concepts Through Full-Configuration Multidisciplinary Design, Analysis, and Optimization.”

The team, one of six that was awarded funding in the fourth round of the ULI program, focuses on research to improve the safety, noise reduction and affordability of vertical lift aircraft. M4’s involvement is to leverage its M4 Structures Studio (M4SS), a physics-based, weight-prediction software for designing aircraft. NASA’s Civilian Commercialization Readiness Pilot Program (CCRPP) funded M4SS. Earlier, M4 developed RapidFEM software, the genesis of the now-automated M4SS model.

The CCRPP is one of two US government-sponsored Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts awarded to help small companies conduct R&D.

M4 was awarded a separate government-aided contract to help design eVTOL air taxis. “Our [M4SS] software helps with the early design of these vehicles,” said Tyler Winter, M4 manager of research and development. “We can build these models rapidly.”

M4SS has matured to the point that it is “vehicle agnostic,” said Winter. It can aid in the design and operability of fixed-wing, helicopters and eVTOL multi-rotor aircraft.

The software is particularly valuable for unconventional vehicles, such as the wildly successful Ingenuity Mars Helicopter, which first flew above the Red Planet on April 19, 2021 (see “Ingenuity Takes Off on Mars,” Vertiflite, May/June 2021).

AeroVironment, one of the principal first-tier vendors for the Ingenuity mission, contracted M4 to “simulate the loads environment expected during the vehicle’s mission and to provide an analytical case for mission success of the solar panel substrate,” according to a statement by AeroVironment.

Of M4’s contribution to the Ingenuity mission, Ben Pipenberg, engineering lead on the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter program and AeroVironment senior aeromechanical engineer said: “M4’s expertise in structural analysis and validation methods proved to be critical during the development of Ingenuity’s solar array substrate. Having M4’s staff embedded with the development team allowed us to rapidly iterate to an optimized structural solution with a high degree of confidence.”

The solar panel substrate is the component on which the solar panel was mounted, allowing Ingenuity to harness the solar energy to power the diminutive electric helicopter. M4 validated Ingenuity’s solar panel substrate design through finite-element analysis, which “verified performance targets while remaining within the component’s weight budget.” Robustness of the solar panel substrate was analyzed for both static and dynamic loading scenarios expected during the mission. Ingenuity’s 30-day flight demonstration was so successful that NASA extended the mission for another month (see “Continued Ingenuity,” Vertiflite, July/August 2021).

M4 provides detailed analyses for numerous unconventional aircraft. “It is critical to understand the loads of these vehicles,” said Winter. “Such analysis could determine whether the aircraft is aerodynamically viable or not.”

M4 is known for its expertise in structural weight prediction, modeling and aeroelastics. As such, the company can add significant value to the air mobility sector in terms of understanding aeroelastics-type issues associated with these vehicles. One area of concern is flutter, an oscillation of aerodynamic forces of thrust, drag and lift of an aircraft in flight.

“To make sure these vehicles are flyable and safe, engineers have to make sure they’re flutter free,” said Winter, who has been with M4 since 2008.

M4 Structures Studio (M4SS) was used to model the Uber Elevate eCRM configurations.

For this article, M4 revealed a strategic R&D partnership with California-based Xagon Solutions to provide engineering services and be the system integrator for the full size prototype of Xagon’s next-generation Adaptive Ducted Fan (ADF), “which will maximize the amount of air drawn into the duct with minimum loss, generating an increase in thrust,” stated M4. Founded in September 2019 by Alexander Balan, Xagon intends to produce energy-saving ADFs and heavy-lift cargo drones for commercial and military use.

As this issue was going to print, M4 Engineering and Re:Build Manufacturing’s Advanced Materials Group announced a collaborative partnership to bring a streamlined, customer-focused capability to the emerging UAM community. “This relationship leverages each organization’s core competency to provide customers world-class concept-to-design services along with an efficient path to cost-competitive, certifiable, advanced aero structures to meet program deadlines and commence serial production,” M4 told Vertiflite.

M4 has made inroads in the fixed-wing electric flight world too. The company has a role in the design of what is hoped to be the world’s first all-electric commuter airliner being built by Israel-based Eviation. Dubbed Alice, the $4M, nine-passenger electric conventional takeoff and landing (eCTOL) aircraft has a projected range of 440 nm (815 km). M4 will design and fabricate the nacelles for Alice. How many engines and nacelles Alice will have and the final configuration remains a mystery at present. When unveiled at the 2019 Paris Air Show, Alice had electric motors on the two wingtips and a third behind a V-tail. According to a Jan. 19, 2021, report by FlightGlobal, Alice may now have just two motors — one on each side of the rear fuselage — and a T-tail.

A non-disclosure agreement prevents M4 from discussing the present configuration of Alice, and Eviation declined to provide any information on the commuter liner’s present design. Type certification of the Alice is tentatively planned for the end of 2022. US-based regional airline, Cape Air, is the launch customer.

Xagon Arthropoda eVTOL concept. Xagon looks to sell its Adaptive Ducted Fans as a supplier. (Xagon)

Growth Opportunities

Nothing demonstrates a company’s growth better than internal expansion. M4 expanded recently doubled the size of its Testing and Prototyping Center. The build-out allows for further design, testing and deployment of various systems for prime contractors, including aircraft manufacturers. The center, which opened just prior to the pandemic, blends the R&D and services side, and opens up a new avenue for M4.

M4’s business extends beyond the aerospace field. Its prior work with Modular Wind Energy, Inc. (later bought by Vestas), is a case in point. The relationship began years ago with a program funded by the State of California to lower the overall cost of wind power.

M4 is analyzing Xagon’s next-generation Adaptive Ducted Fan (ADF) with inlet panels that open (top) and close (bottom) to modulate the airflow. (Xagon)

The designing, transporting, installing and repairing of giant wind turbine blades remains a logistical challenge for manufacturers and providers of wind power. M4 came up with the technology to build the turbine blades in segments and assemble them in the field.

“It takes some mental adjustment to apply our aerospace technology to the wind business, but we continue to support clients in that space,” said Baker. In some ways, M4 remains a “helper-type company,” added Baker. “We help clients make their own configurations better, more efficient.”

M4 is extending its footprint beyond North America as well. In March 2021, it established a strategic partnership with Digital Process, Ltd. (DIPRO), a Japan-based engineering and manufacturing software concern with numerous facilities in Japan and China. M4 distributes DIPRO Xphere and VridgeR software and provides technical support services in North America.

Being a successful company is only part of the plan. M4 embraces the concept of “paying it forward,” particularly in educating young people who could one day work for entities like M4. The company provides mentorships with high schools and universities, including California State University Long Beach. The firm’s community outreach work began years ago with a request to support the VEX Robotics team at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science (CAMS).

Baker poses with the VEX Robotics Team at the California Academy of Mathematics and Science. M4 provides ongoing support for local educational, veteran, youth, business and economic organizations in the Long Beach region.

M4 supports the region’s business community. It helped establish the Long Beach Aerospace Council, which supports the aerospace industry in the region. Long Beach has an 80-year history of supporting aviation and aerospace endeavors. Virgin Orbit, a unit of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, is headquartered in Long Beach, as is SpinLaunch, a satellite-related company.

Keeping up with advances in various technologies and capitalizing on business opportunities wherever they lie has been key to M4’s success. What started as an underfunded, one-person operation has grown into a multi-faceted company that can provide expertise for a wide variety of civil and military customers. And they’ve done it in just 20 years.

Sidebar: Keeping the Dream Alive

Like a lot of bright, ambitious engineers, Myles Baker began his career with one of the behemoths in aerospace — McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, California, where he worked in the advanced programs and airplane division.

M4 Engineering Founder and CEO Dr. Myles Baker

While good experience, the young PhD’s stint at McDonnell, which merged with Boeing in August 1997, conflicted with his dream of starting his own aerospace business. So, in 2001, he did just that. His first order of business was naming his fledgling company. He came up with M4 Engineering, with each “M” representing the names of his wife, Maureen, and two children, Mitchell and Manderlee, and himself.

The first few years were lean for Baker and company. His first office was located in the spare room of his modest home, with him as the only employee. Yet, Baker’s story is similar to another start-up. In 1975, young Bill Gates and Paul Allen started Microsoft in their small garage in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and they did fairly well.

M4’s first contract dealt with optimizing structures of solid rocket motors for the US Army in Huntsville, Alabama. Despite several jobs, keeping M4 solvent was difficult. “There were times when it was financially challenging and we weren’t sure if we would make the next payroll,” remembered Baker.

Asked where the aerospace sector was headed, he cited the growing public/private partnerships in the space business particularly and their overall positive effects on independent companies like M4. “I find it enormously exciting to see the amount of private funding going into what has been the domain of government agencies,” said Baker. “You can’t throw a rock without hitting a start-up in the launch vehicle business. It’s an exciting time to be in aerospace.”

The increase in venture capital for eVTOL and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is noteworthy too, he added.

Educating and mentoring the engineers of tomorrow is of paramount importance to M4’s founder. Baker offered a novel answer on how high schools, colleges and universities could enhance science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curricula: “The hands-on aspect of learning is very important, particularly for prospective engineers. Every engineer should use their own hands to build at least one part in order to understand the intricacies of what they’re designing, analyzing.”

“I am a strong proponent of hands-on education, everything from shop classes in high schools to more hands-on activities at universities.”

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