He made a bold but flawed bid to create a new sector of aviation, and now very-light-jet pioneer (VLJ) Vern Raburn is returning to aerospace, assuming the reins of another start-up taking aim at a market that does not exist—yet.
Raburn, who founded VLJ maker Eclipse Aviation in 1998 and saw the company set a production record before he was ousted in 2008 as the company headed into bankruptcy, has been named CEO and chairman of Titan Aerospace, a New Mexico-based start-up developing solar-powered, high-altitude, ultra-long-endurance unmanned aircraft.
Titan is developing the Solara series of “atmospheric satellites,” aiming to fill the gap between conventional aircraft and satellites with solar-powered UAVs that could stay aloft at 65,000 ft. for up to five years.
The former Microsoft executive is taking over as CEO as the Moriarty, N.M.-based company is preparing to fly its first production-size prototype and embark on a major financing round aimed at venture capitalists. “This is what I do—start-ups with lots of risk and no markets,” says Raburn, who describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur.” Titan was started four years ago in a loft in New York, “and now it's time to get serious,” he says.
After a career involving leadership roles at software companies Microsoft, Lotus and Symantec, Raburn founded Eclipse to develop and manufacture the Eclipse 500, initially offering the twin-turbofan VLJ at just under $1 million. After development delays caused by a change of engine supplier, deliveries began in January 2007. The company shipped 260 aircraft in just 17 months but, facing supplier and financial problems, Raburn resigned in July 2008 and the company later filed for bankruptcy protection.
The failure of on-demand air-taxi operator and Eclipse customer DayJet accelerated the manufacturer's demise. But Eclipse's assets were purchased out of liquidation and a new company, Eclipse Aerospace, began operations in September 2009, restarting production of the VLJ this year.
Raburn, meanwhile, says he became aware of Titan because the start-up is located “two hangars down” from where his sailplanes are based at Moriarty. The idea of atmospheric satellites is not new, having been pursued bywith the hydrogen-fueled Global Observer and with the solar-powered Zephyr, but Raburn says Titan's approach is based on combining off-the-shelf technologies.
“We don't have to invent anything. It's in how we integrate and operate it,” he says, citing lightweight carbon-fiber structures, high-efficiency solar cells, high-power-density batteries and miniaturized payloads. “This combination of technologies gives us a very lightweight aircraft with a really big span,” Raburn says, adding that this provides the area needed for solar energy collection and span loading required to withstand turbulence enroute to 65,000 ft.
Titan's 50-meter-span (164-ft.) Solar 50 will carry a payload of around 50 lb., increasing to 250 lb. for the 60-meter-span Solara 60. Endurance will start at weeks, “and we will build up to months,” Raburn says. “We don't know yet if it will go for years.” He cites uncertainty about how long components such as bearings will operate before breaking, or how many charge/discharge cycles that batteries will withstand. “We are learning a lot from the satellite industry,” he says.
The aircraft are being designed so new generations of higher-efficiency solar cells and higher-power-density batteries can be plugged in, extending endurance and increasing payload. “They are designed to be easily upgradable,” he says.
First flight of the Solara 50 is expected in late spring, and Titan plans a year-long test program while it works with theon certification and prepares for production and operation. Certification is a major hurdle to be overcome. The FAA is only beginning to allow commercial operations by civil UAVs and is starting with systems already operated by the Pentagon. “The FAA is an issue, but we hope they will be ready,” says Raburn. “I am cautiously optimistic.”
Whether Titan's business model will be selling UAVs or providing services, “we don't yet—it could be either or both,” he says. “There is not a market there today, but we think there is going to be and that we fit into a slot that cannot be done with UAVs today.”