Attending the India Institute of Technology Madras, becoming an Aerospace Engineer
Building one f the world’s largest combustion research centers in academia
Drones, the importance of wings, and how to fly slowly
When you try to add the advantages of a plane and a drone, you also get the disadvantages
Teaching the first class of electric aircraft propulsion in the world
Building a platform for shared air mobility?
Asset utilization and a comparison to road-driven shared mobility
How deeply ensconced India is in aerospace manufacturing
I Decided I Needed to Go Electric
Even If You Know How It Works, It’s So Fascinating
I Don’t Think Drones are Particularly Aerospace
Why Couldn’t I Actually Do a Plane Company?
Take Off is Optional, Landing Is Mandatory
Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):
Michael Waitze 0:00
Now the recorder is on. Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to India GameChanger. Today we are joined by Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy, a co founder at ePlane.ai. Satya, for my convenience. Thank you very much for coming on the show. How are you doing, by the way?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 0:19
Thank you very much, Mike. And thanks very much for having me.
Michael Waitze 0:23
It is it is my pleasure. Look, you mentioned before we started recording, so I have to ask the question I told you beforehand. I’m just a curious guy. You said the first two syllables of every Indian name has a meaning. So you will refers to or Satya, what does it mean? Shoot? Truth. I love it. So do you have brothers and sisters as well?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 0:42
I have one sister, the other one.
Michael Waitze 0:44
And what is her name mean? The first two syllables?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 0:48
Oh, yeah. Interestingly, her name was very short. And it has only two syllables. So her name is Rama. And other thing it means beautiful. Yeah,
Michael Waitze 0:57
makes sense. Makes sense. Okay, I’ve just curious. Anyway, thank you very much. And before we get into the central part of this conversation and dig deeper into the plan, why don’t we get a little bit of your background for some context as well.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 1:09
So fundamentally, I’m an aerospace engineer. That’s what I did for my bachelor’s, master’s, PhD. Everything.
Michael Waitze 1:17
You cannot please go ahead.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 1:20
Did my did my bachelor’s at IIT Madras, went to Georgia Tech for my masters and PhD was a postdoc after a couple of years, came back to teach your went through my career progression as a faculty member at this institution at IIT Madras aerospace engineering, built one of the world’s largest combustion research centers in academia. While I was just getting ready to launch it, I decided that I need to actually go electric.
Michael Waitze 1:49
That is so interesting. Can I back up a little bit to Georgia? What was it you said? You went to Georgia Tech for your master’s degree? Yeah. And B and your PhD? What was it like living in Georgia for you? Like where are you from originally in India? Yeah.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 2:03
I’m from Chennai. I was born and brought up in Chennai went to college in Chennai. I’m back in Chennai. So I lived in I’ve lived in primarily two cities in my life, very boring life that way. Chennai and Atlanta, I probably spent cumulatively over four trips, about six months and after Germany, that’s about it. That’s it.
Michael Waitze 2:22
All right. What was it like living in Atlanta?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 2:25
It was interesting. They give you a best example of what Atlanta is like for a lot of people in the US. So when I took my wife the first time, right, so we landed in Atlanta, in the evening, so we drove directly to my apartment, the next day, we were going doing groceries, she asked me the question, are we in? Are we in America or South Africa? And that’s because Atlanta actually has a, a, at least at that time, I was in they had like about a 65% African American population. So it was unlike a lot of other US cities. So it’s very diverse that way. Right? quite diverse. You feel at home with most of that.
Michael Waitze 3:07
That? Yeah, that’s really interesting. My brother did his residency at Emory along with his wife as well. So I spent some time there. Yes. Really kind of an unbelievable and a really dynamic city, as you mentioned. Yeah. Which is very diverse, which is super cool. Yeah. And it’s just an interesting view on the United States of America. To be fair, yeah.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 3:26
Yes, it is. That’s the point of the thing. And of course, for me, the icing on the cake was I was around the time and the Olympics happen there. The Centennial Olympics.
Michael Waitze 3:33
Oh, wow. That was but yeah, that must have been awesome as well. Yeah. But you came back to India and came back to Chennai. Did you say you graduated from IIT?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 3:44
The same place the same place that for foreign bachelors? Yes, you did. Right?
Michael Waitze 3:48
And how do you get from teaching into founding,
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 3:54
the commercial center that I developed or setup is actually fairly large. It started with about $11 million funding, and it’s now grown to about 30 plus million dollars in just doing research and engineering for a lot of industry people. So we’ve done like, what 50 Plus projects, I’m always proud to say that we associate with GE Aviation a lot. For example, we have been doing a lot of work with them as a very good example. And the reason why we do this is because we actually do research at a scale that’s very relevant to the industry, right. So that means like, almost getting to the real conditions of pressure, temperature, all of that stuff for studying combustion engines, right. So, which essentially meant that we have large, big engineering setups in our lab and that and that essentially meant that we thought, we could actually go develop big engineering products. So we have a rocket company, we have a micro gas turbine company, we have a waste of waste to crude oil company on We have a oldest observational satellite company, we have a Hyperloop, company, all of that stuff happening at the combustion center. And I thought to myself, if we could do all of those things with blood co founders half my age, why couldn’t actually we’re going to actually do a plane company myself.
Michael Waitze 5:16
Yeah. Why can’t you there’s nothing stopping you from this, you’re doing this while you’re still involved in that combustion center? Is that true? Or you’re doing it separately,
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 5:23
emotion centered is still active. But I think I’ve, hopefully I have a fairly good administrative streak in me to have put it on a on an auto mode. So it’s running by itself. While I’m actually running more, more and more time on my company.
Michael Waitze 5:38
So where does this interest for flying come from? Like, was your dad in the Air Force? Do you know what I mean? Or is it just something you’ve always cared about?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 5:46
Oh, no, I think Indians are actually kind of peculiar the way they grew up. Right. So So since it’s a highly competitive environment, so for me to actually get into my Bachelor’s at IIT, Madras, I had to actually go through this insanely competitive exam, you get a rank, and the rank determines the rest of your career. It’s kind of like a lottery. Wow. Right. So I did aerospace engineering simply because I got that rank. I mean, you have a little bit of choice around the rank. But given everything I just landed up in aerospace engineering. And then you’re also familiar with the arranged marriage system in India, right? So if you start loving the wife that you get married to, and it’s very similar in Korea to so so all of these things kind of go together. So when I started doing aerospace engineering, I quickly realized that aerospace engineering is not exactly about planes, and rockets, it’s about this mentality that you should be aspiring to do what other people think is impossible.
Michael Waitze 6:45
Tell me what that means, though. Like, that’s super interesting. Right? So it’s not just about the planes. It’s you said aspiring to do something that other people think are impossible does. Is that just an IIT Madras thing? Like, where does that come from?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 6:58
No, I think it’s an aerospace engineering attitude around the world. It’s actually an attitude. It’s not a career. Yeah, for sure. For sure. Go ahead. Right. So okay, go through the entire course in aerospace engineering, I know how a plane works. It still sit at the window, and then look at the wing. And then when you start the wing is actually right here. And then when you’re when you’re not taking off the wing is actually up there. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that. And it’s doing this. And you’re like, Oh, my God, is it really gonna fly? I think okay. Right. So that’s what actually is what Aerospace is all about. Right? So how does it really work? And even if you knew how it works, it’s so fascinating. Right? So which essentially means that you go out and think about doing things that other people would have wouldn’t even have thought about doing?
Michael Waitze 7:45
Yeah, so this is what I want to know. Right? I think about a drone. And I and I really curious about this? Is it just me because I have this philosophy, right? That everything’s an overnight success? 10 years later, and I use 10 is just kind of a random number. Yeah. Cuz it’s far enough away through the people like that’s not overnight, but close enough so that it feels like okay, you’ve been working on it for a decade kind of thing. But drones, did they just come on? And nowhere? Or is this something that people have been working on forever, and that the motors got small enough, the blades got strong enough, the weight of the machine got light enough. And then it was just like, I think this is going to work? Because it looks like drones are now taking over the way we think about flight for innovation. Do I have this wrong?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 8:26
No, no, I think it’s absolutely right. Except that I have a different take about drones specifically. Go ahead, right. I don’t really think drones are particularly aerospace. They are they are more like electronic gizmos are electromechanical gizmo. So ahead, what you’re trying to do is essentially have a battery pack and then wire them up to motors, the motors are connected to propellers. So the motors turn, the propellers turn. So you start lifting up. The only thing that’s going forward, that’s actually Aerospace is what’s called as flight man flight mechanics. So something that actually stabilizes the drone from shaking around and stuff. Right. And that’s today, actually shareware routines, you can get academic rotors. Correct. So most college kids will actually take a shot at it. I think the key thing about drones is because there are so many of these travelers that are running around the store by breeding the whole thing, right, right, to make a very rugged drone, that that you can actually sell like a commodity is a challenge when compared to what a college kid can actually achieve. So the real Aerospace is in throwing in things like wings, red wings, tail, the horizontal tail, the vertical tail, the flight, right, all of that stuff, which actually is where the challenges because these drones can actually last for about 10 to 20 minutes most of the time, because they always have these propellers. What we do, for example, in the plane company that we’re supposed to be talking about, actually put wings at the so that we can get what would you call us drones itself right to be holding around or going around for about two The hours in the air and plug something like about 150 kilometers kind of distances. And that’s what I think is going to space.
Michael Waitze 10:08
I love this value are very particular about the aerospace part of this. No, I love him. And this is, this is the truth. This is the point of the truth. Have you said, you fell in life, you fell in love with the wife of aerospace that you were given, I can feel it, you know it, you know it for sure. But talk to me as a as a person who doesn’t completely understand aeronautical engineering, by adding the wings right in the front in the back or in the middle of the body in the back. And we can talk about exactly what the plan is in a second way. Besides just pure stabilization, can you talk to me as well about how it changes the lift the travel, you know, the impact on the battery, or the motor? And all that other kind of stuff, too? Because I’m super curious. Yeah.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 10:51
Easy, easy. So, actually, the stabilization that you mentioned comes next, right? So the primary purpose of the wing is to generate what we call us aerodynamic lift lifts. And you have that that jargon. So pardon me for that. Right. So what it essentially does is if you now have a wing, and that’s set in motion, going forward, and you have the air or the wind going around the wing, the there’s a sort of like a differential pressure over the wing, that allows for the wing to be lifted. And when the wing gets lifted, its job is to actually try to balance the weight of the entire aircraft. Alright. So what that means is that I don’t need to have these vertical travelers that are, you know, running around, like, what do you see in the drones all the time? So I’m not guzzling any power, right? So where’s the cash, right? What am I actually having to spend the power on, while going forward, I’m plugging wind resistance that we call an aerodynamic drag. And all I have to do is to overcome the aerodynamic drag. And the aerodynamic drag is only about a 10th, or even less than the weight of the aircraft that we need to balance with the lift. Right. So that essentially means that I’m having to spend my battery on about a 10th of the power requirement, when compared to if I were to be rotating these propellers all the time, in a drone, that essentially means that I can actually stay up in the air 10 times longer. And more importantly, I’m a having to recharge my battery 10 times less often. And that means that I don’t have to actually throw away my battery soon enough, right? And the battery is actually the most expensive part of the plane. And I spend less and less about 1/10 of what I have to do in June, if I would actually have a blink job.
Michael Waitze 12:36
Is the battery also one of the heaviest parts of the plane? Yes,
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 12:39
You need, you need, the most heaviest.
Michael Waitze 12:41
So this is really interesting, because it feels to me like there are a bunch of wins here that are all very technical and technology related, right? In other words, battery technology is making progress. But tell me if I’m wrong here, but probably not as fast as like microchips are making progress, right? So you want to have that as small as possible, but you want it to stay charged as long as possible. So you’re you’re suggesting to me that in the in the plane, the way it’s designed right now, the vertical lift that you get when you call it VTOL? Is that vertical? Takeoff? And lift? I have that right. So with the vertical landing, landing, excuse me, yeah, sorry. But that vertical lift that you have at the beginning? is just the be it just is that the only use of the the kind of DRONE PROPELLERS or do they sometimes pop on when you’re flying as well? Like, how does all that how does that work?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 13:27
That’s the USP of the ePlane company.
Michael Waitze 13:32
How good am I by the way? I just came up with that just now. Go ahead.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 13:36
Absolutely. That’s because you’re actually thinking from first principles, you’re not bogged down by dogma, right? You didn’t get taught by data about these things in a classroom by a teacher right now. That’s the point, right? So the question we have to ask is, if I’m actually trying to marry a plane with a drone, right, we always think about getting what we want achieved, it is also true in life, right? So with with any people around, you always want to actually try to get get to achieve what we want to get achieved. But we don’t think about what else is happening, right? That may not exactly happen the way we want to get kind of marry two advantages of like a plane and a drone. The disadvantages will also get married. So and many people actually disregard that part. Right? So what does it really mean? So when I’m actually trying to take off vertically with these premolars, the vertical propellers, right, fine, you got the job done, right? But the wheeling is actually sitting like this, and the air is coming around like this. It’s very slow. So it doesn’t matter. But it’s actually almost like in the face, if you will, right. It’s a baseball swing, right? So the wing is
Michael Waitze 14:42
the way to go like this. This is where you get that.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 14:45
Ideally, you’re doing something going like this, right? There are people who actually tried to do that and then try to flip this display and so on now, but let’s say you just want to stick to a plane, which will actually go up like this, the windows actually slapping on the A wing and that’s not, that’s not too good. Now, let’s say actually got to the point and then you know, move forward, the wing now kicks in and then produces the lift. But these vertical rotors now are actually a deadweight, right? And that causes a additional drag, and then they just weigh you down. And you have to carry them along all the way till you land. Because when you want to land, you need them again. Right? Right. So it’s when aerospace pick up this victim, or take off as optional landed, landing is mandatory. Right, so just because you want to learn you’re actually caring about so I used to come up with a very, very lame comparison, imagine that people actually made buildings without staircases, right? And they expect you to carry on a ladder with you everywhere, right? And that’s exactly what we’re doing. Got it. Go ahead, right. So question is, what do you do with these vertical rotors as you go forward? Is there a way we can actually utilize them,
Michael Waitze 15:55
if before you finish it, I want to know what you do. Because the implication here is, if you don’t do anything about it, they’re either deadweight, which means you’re gonna have to figure out a way to generate more energy and get the wings to go even harder because they have a weight on them. So you’re running into this aerodynamic lift problem. That’s first one second, well, you can run them, but then you’re just running the energy anyway. So now you have battery problems, you’re back to that thing.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 16:17
Right, so the question is, is that a balance? Right? So the answer is yes. So one of the things that I did when I decided that I’ll actually go electric, right, but my planes, I didn’t initially mean to immediately get into entrepreneurship. Right? And co founder company, I did what all professors would do, right? Start learning about this, and then look around what what’s happening, go to conferences, write, and present papers on some new research that I do on this, and also teach a course. Right? So I actually, I think I’m the one who taught the first course on electric aircraft propulsion in the world in 2019. That’s because a good professor when he wants to learn something, he actually teaches it to unsuspecting students. Right?
Michael Waitze 16:59
Tell me if I’m wrong here as well. But isn’t the teaching part of the process of do I really understand this kind of thing?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 17:05
Absolutely. Because if I want to make sense to myself, I need to be able to articulate this to a bunch of people. And if it doesn’t make sense to them, it’s not gonna make make sense to me. Yeah. Right. So why we actually step out God and then teach.
Michael Waitze 17:19
When you do that, right? Are you also trying to learn even more? In other words, you’re teaching a bunch of super smart students, right? Like, they’re, you know what I mean? Like, you’re in an aeronautics engineering class, right? Let’s just be fair, these are smart guys and gals. Yeah. And you’re teaching this new thing to them with electric propulsion, like, I think I got this. Do you ever have experiences and I know, this is a little bit of a tangent, where somebody in the class will raise their hand and say, Hey, but how about this? And you’re like, Oh, I’ve been trying to figure this out. Maybe that will help me kind of thing?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 17:45
Absolutely. That’s exactly the reason why I would teach. So essentially, two things happen. Right? So particularly if I’m actually teaching a completely new course, right? It’s new to me, right? But it’s all new to the world. Sure, you don’t. So for example, we don’t have textbooks on what I’m what I’m thinking, right, have to put together research papers, and why and then have classes on these papers, right? Yeah. And I’m not I have not written these papers myself, right. So I don’t know exactly what’s going on. Right. So I just read them and then try to make sense out of them to the students. So if a student asks a question that I can’t answer the first first responses, I don’t know. Yeah. Right. Right. But but more more often than not, I actually look for this situation that you talked about, if there’s, if I see I don’t know, another student, it figures it out, right, it’s even better for me, right. So that’s now while I bring this up, because when we were going through this, we found that NASA has actually done quite a bit of work on the NASA Jet, a lot of research on what’s called as distributed electric propulsion. So what they did was to actually pick a plane, which had a nose mounted propeller, and of course, with a combustion engine. So they threw away the combustion engine, they removed the big propeller inside, they actually put a lot of small propellers that were powered by small electric motors and wire electricity to all these small motors from a battery pack. With this, what they did was to show that if you blow a lot of air, the small propellers over the wing, the wing can actually generate a lot more lift, right, but you need one of these so much lift has to balance the weight of the aircraft. So that means the wind can actually become smaller, and have the Big Bang become smaller, a smaller wing can actually generate the lift that you want. And it doesn’t actually experience the vendor assistance as much as a larger wing, and you can save power there. So we try to do the same thing with the vertical rotors do now. So that’s actually our USP and our IP, right. So we figured out the positions where these vertical routers should be right and at what what sweetspot speeds that they need to operate, that will actually make the wing work much better so that I can make the wing very compact, right and by making the wing very compact, and also fly very slowly, I can go short distances, and also land in very tight spots. So this is what we think is actually required for a taxi like operation.
Michael Waitze 20:03
What is slowly mean?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 20:06
Slowly means that planes actually have to fly very fast because the wings will have to be effective. So you put, the faster you fly, the greater the pressure differential, across across the wings surface, because the wind speed on the top will be more than the wing speed at the bottom and so on. Okay. Typically, these wings are designed for a particular speed that is usually on the higher side, right. So, let’s say for example, if the speed were like about 30, sorry, 300 to 350 kilometers per hour, by the time you take off, reach that speed, and then you need to lean back, right, you would have covered like about a 50 kilometers, and that takes you outside a city, that’s not a taxi that you would want to take for you want to go go from one place to the other within the city? No, right? So you want to have a helicopter kind of speed, right? Which is essentially like what drones could do as well. Now, how do they do the trick? How do I actually get my plane to go very slow, typical slow flying planes have very large wings, because we need to have the blood surface to back to compensate for that. Less differential pressure that you get right. And that makes it less compact. I cannot land anywhere that I want in a crowded city. Go ahead. So this is actually very difficult to crack. And that’s what we did, because we’re actually using the vertical tutors while in forward flight. The question that you asked first,
Michael Waitze 21:26
yeah. How long did it take you to figure this out? And how much fun was it actually is? Is is a better question
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 21:34
idea. The idea did not take too much time for me to figure out because I asked this question, if I’m marrying the advantages of two things, what’s happening to the marriage of the disadvantages? Yeah. So that’s a question that nobody not not many people really ask. Okay. So the moment I actually asked that question, I could actually figure out I need to do something about this, right. Now, on the other hand, the other thing that I would like to actually also emphasize for tech entrepreneurs is your tech should actually be derived from business requirements, rather than you say, I have this tech, I have to figure out how to actually make business out of it. That’s not how entrepreneurship works. Go ahead, right. So for me to actually have a taxi, I need to have a wing that will give me a long range. And I need to be able to fly slow so that I can do multiple short hops in a single charge, like how a taxi does, you also have a very compact wing so that I can land and take off from tight spaces. This is exactly what I want for a taxi. And how do I do this within a veto? And that’s where the question of how do I take advantage of not allowing the disadvantages to get married? Right? Yeah,
Michael Waitze 22:45
yeah. Or not? If even if they do get married not to have the matter? In a way that’s cumulative, or exponential? How do you handle? Like, have you tested this? This is a flying machine. It’s already tested a lens and it flies and all this other stuff? Yeah.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 23:00
So we’ve done a smaller version that sits on the table? Well, that’s what I said goes up to about one 150 kilometers. Right, and, and stays up in the air for two hours. Yep. So we have tested it at that scale, we are actually assembling something that’s about three meters wide. It’s a sub scheme roadmap of the actual air taxi is capable of carrying up to 50 kilograms of payload, okay, going over 100 kilometers. And that’s something that we expect to fly by the end of next month. So this is all on the flights. But the concept actually has been tested in the laboratory with just a wing and a router. Right? So just to just take these bare bones elements to figure out like, am I getting extra left, because I’m positioning the router with respect to the wing, the right place and have the right speeds, right. We also done a large number of numerical simulations.
Michael Waitze 23:55
What is the tech that needs to sit on the plane? Sorry, from a software perspective, right? Because I presume that these rotors are making constant micro adjustments to speed. Yeah. And also battery efficiency, trying to take as little energy as possible, while running as fast as you know, all this optimization is taking place, what kind of what kind of software and tech is on the plane? That’s
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 24:15
an interesting question. So that the, this can actually be done at two levels, the constant micro adjustments that are required on these motors and the vertical propellers is primarily required during the vertical takeoff and vertical landing. Or if I were to hover somewhere in the middle, right? While going forward, the adjustments are actually coming from what we what he usually calls these ailerons elevators on the rudder, right. So that’s what actually goes with a wink and a tail and a horizontal tail or a vertical tail. Okay. All right, you see those planes would actually have these flaps that the pilot would actually be, you know, moving around. Those are the ones that are going through the constant adjustment that you’re talking about to stabilize the plane in forward flight. So you don’t need The vertical rotors to do this, okay, right. So at the first level, we can just set them to a constant speed, so that they will just do their job of, you know, working with the wing. And you don’t need them to actually jiggle in order to be able to adjust the plane. But at the next level, you can actually have a redundant and a second layer of control, where in addition to the aileron, rudder and the elevator, right, you can also have these as a second authority of control, right, where they do this constant adjustment, and that will consume some power. So the question basically, is, what’s the trade off that you want to give for an additional layer of control versus the power? It’s gonna be?
Michael Waitze 25:39
Like, what work you have to do with regulators, right? Because if it’s going to be in a city, which, as you said, makes the most sense, right? In other words, I don’t want to get into a taxi and definitely don’t want to sit in traffic in Jakarta and hajiman, in Bangkok, in Delhi and Chennai in bungler. I don’t want to sit in traffic, and all these cities have traffic, right? How do you get how do you get regulatory approval for that type of flight? Right? In other words, even today, regular drones can just fly wherever they want. How do you how do you solve that business problem to
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 26:05
oh, this is actually the biggest problem that’s getting pretty much a lot of people around the world. So what we have found is FDA in the US and Yassa, in Europe, or primarily seized of this question. And they have been evolving and developing regulatory standards for certification of the aircraft of the kind that you’re talking about Patrick beetles, and we basically need to have other certification agencies around the world adopt any of these standards, instead of reinventing the wheel, go through the standards to examine the aircraft and certify them based on these standards. That’s, that’s essentially what we expect should be happening in the next couple of years.
Michael Waitze 26:48
But at some level is gonna have to happen, right? I mean, if these planes are being built, I don’t even know if you can call them a plane. But if these vehicles are being built so that individuals can buy them, I want to talk about that in a second, too. Right? If it’s at a price point of a luxury car, I don’t know what that is 150 grand, I mean, I’m just making a number up off the top of my head, right?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 27:06
How did you know that?
Michael Waitze 27:08
I just mean because I mean, that’s, that’s what a typical luxury, that’s what my, that’s what my Cayenne cost me anyway. But if that’s the case, people are just gonna start flying them around, right? In other words, it’s gonna have to happen. And if you want to alleviate traffic problems, if we’re gonna have 10 billion people on the planet, like flying around in electrical vehicle, it’s just going to be more efficient than driving around in a car, I would presume, right. And at some point, they’re going to be a little bit bigger, so you can have more people in that the wage distribution is going to be better as well. But can regular people fly these things?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 27:39
Oh, well, you know, you have to ask the question, What did people think about driver’s licenses before?
Michael Waitze 27:45
I’m asking? It’s the same thing, right? It’s no different. In other words, if I’m riding around on a horse, and I see some dude ride by in a combustion, internal combustion engine, I’m like, Oh, my God, I’m just gonna die if I ever have to drive that thing.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 27:56
So say that you’d have license to drive? Right? So that’s a question Do you have to do your ask? So the answer is very simple. Anybody who wants to actually fly any of these things needs to have a pilot’s license, right pilot’s license to fly this particular plane, right? So private pilot’s license has two parts a basic, a flying flight training. The other one is training to fly a particular type of aircraft. Exactly. Yeah. So we need to go through those. And that’s what we expect will happen. So progressively they can, they can be three levels, right? So let’s say for example, you bought one of these planes, you have the headache of having to actually go through a pilot’s training for this particular plane, at some point, right? That’s number one. Second, you could say, well, actually, if I could afford to buy this plane, I might as well actually hire a pilot, right? Who is meant for piloting this plane? So that means it’s kind of like a chauffeur driven like a driver? Yeah. Right. The third is, forget about all these things, actually, called something like an Uber. That’ll get you the plane. And there’ll be a pilot that’s meant for flying this. And then you just go through what’s called shared mobility.
Michael Waitze 29:04
So that’s the other thing too is do you build the shared mobility as part of the business model? Do you know what I mean? In other words, is the plane going to be the shared mobility part for air service, right? Because then you hired you don’t have to hire but like, you can hire outdoor contract with pilots. So there’s when I get to the airport here, I’d love to go downstairs to go out back and just go just drop me off. It’s gonna be the road. It’ll take me seven minutes, right in a helicopter, or in an E plane. I’d pay for that. And if you’re saying it costs one and a half times, I mean, it’s a it’s like 600 baht, I would definitely pay that I pay 1000 baht to fly from my house to the airport and back. Yeah.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 29:42
Correct. So the quick answer is, if I were greedy, and I’m supposed to be greedy as an entrepreneur, right, so we would like to actually do that because that’s where the money is. But it’s a question of whether I can actually raise the kind of money that’s required for from the investors to be able to do this. And there are questions that people would ask when you’re too early, saying, hey, look, there are these aircraft manufacturers and then there are these airlines, they are two different things. So why would we, we don’t really see both of them to be the same, and so on. But in this case, if actually both of them are the same, that’s been actually we get the money, right.
Michael Waitze 30:15
But also remember this too, right? And, you know, when grab and Uber and Didi, and all these ride hailing companies or mobility sharing companies started, they were like, We’re acid like Airbnb, the same thing. But they also realized that they could maintain some of the margin themselves, actually, if they owned the cars, right. So they buy all these Elise in Thailand, I’m sure they buy like all these Toyota Camrys. And then they lease them out to people that are drivers that can’t afford to buy them. It’s the same thing for Airbnb, they’re like, wait a second, we know how Housing Works. We’re just our building and buying our own apartments will keep some of that margin to like, why just get a commission when I get the whole thing. And then we’ll build a company that actually goes out and cleans all the apartments at services them too, right? There’s a whole bunch of stuff, you can build your entire ecosystem around this, if you’re thinking big enough, investors should understand this. No,
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 31:03
true. Well, there are a couple of subtle differences there. So all of these things eventually lead to what’s called as I said, utilization. Right. So yeah, asset utilization. So. So what Uber does is essentially to utilize cars that would otherwise be parked in parking lots. Sure. And Airbnb is essentially trying to do, you know, let out rooms that otherwise would be remaining vacant at the beginning. Yeah. Right. So that’s, that’s what they’re trying to do. And then these rooms, and these cars actually pre existed when the markets when they when they started the business. So their main goal is to actually expand their markets as much as possible. And their investments are primarily for expansion. Right? So when they are actually becoming like, a unicorn, they are essentially clocking large market share. That’s essentially what they’re going after. In this case, the key thing that you have to understand is, it doesn’t
Michael Waitze 31:57
exist yet. Sorry, it doesn’t exist. Sorry. Go ahead,
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 32:01
Natalie, because we don’t have you don’t have the planes yet. Right. So you have to actually induct those planes out in the market. Yep. Right. But the key thing here is, so two things one, one plane can probably do about 10 times five to 10, times the number of trips a road taxi can do. So I know, because the trips have two very short, right, so you don’t get stuck in traffic. Therefore, the asset utilization in the air is actually a lot better with planes. So you don’t need as many planes as the number of cars right in the first place. Now, the second thing is fine, I can actually become a unicorn. And I would still not be grabbing a large market because this aerospace unicorn is kind of like a bare minimum that I need to block. Right doesn’t mean anything.
Michael Waitze 32:45
It really means nothing. But yeah, go ahead. Yeah.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 32:48
So that’s what it is. So the scale is basically shift from, you know, what it used to be for an Uber or an Airbnb when compared to what this is. But still, the asset utilization happens from each and every single aircraft, because it does like lot more trips in a day when compared to a taxi.
Michael Waitze 33:06
Yeah. I mean, you’re also building into a greenfields industry, right? Because there is no, like, it doesn’t exist yet. Right? So you’re right, that the assets are aren’t already out there. So you can’t use the unused ones, because you have to build them, then you have to make that too. But it feels to me like this is there’s a massive vertical, there’s a massive vertical integration opportunity here. Yes, if it’s done right, Have you have you raised money for this already as well?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 33:29
We’ve raised two rounds. And we are actually going forward raising the next one. So we raised about $6 million
Michael Waitze 33:34
so far. Awesome. How long have you been working on a plan?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 33:38
I’ve been working. So we incorporated this in February of 2019. So we made the small, small plan, and then we want to raise money for commercializing it. But the regulatory framework did not exist at the time in 2019 for it. And so we decided, let’s wait for the regulations. So we’ll actually do what people are actually familiar with, which is a equivalent to a helicopter for pay taking people because drones are something that people are not very much used to, we need to have new regulations. So the whole idea was to actually make something that can fly, fly, based on the standard operating procedures of existing helicopters, so that you don’t need any new routes. Right? So so we just said, let’s actually go ahead and raise money for the plane itself for the for for taking people. But right when we did this is when the pandemic hit. So the economy went in and went into a tailspin. And that took a little while for us to actually recover from and so we raised about 850k dollars by the end of 2020. And so we did the next 5 million by the end of 2021. Good for
Michael Waitze 34:40
you. What’s the status today? You said you’re now building an almost full scale model.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 34:45
Right? This upscaled, so a three meter length. subscale is in the works right now,
Michael Waitze 34:53
it sounds super exciting to me. When do you think that that’s going to be done?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 34:56
We are expecting by the end of next month, September 2022. and
Michael Waitze 35:00
how excited are you?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 35:02
Oh, no keeping Fingers crossed. Notice it’s not my
Michael Waitze 35:07
manufacturing is hard love anything, isn’t it?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 35:10
It is it is. It is. Everything has to fit in.
Michael Waitze 35:13
Yeah, it does. What does it feel like to build in India, for the world? And I’ll tell you why I’m asking because I spoke to somebody a week ago. And one of the things she said to me was, you know, when? Similar generation, right, and she said to me, you know, when we graduated from university, the thing to do is just go overseas and get a job in London or get one in the United States and stuff. And now there’s this reverse thing happening where people are coming back into you, you came back right away, right. But this idea of building say it again.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 35:43
I was early the early idiot.
Michael Waitze 35:46
I wouldn’t say idiot. But you were definitely early, for sure. But how does it feel to build like from India for the world? You know what I mean?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 35:52
Yeah, so I think it’s not really I mean, it kind of sounds magical. But it’s kind of like what you said about the overnight in 10 years kind of thing? Yeah. So there are a lot of things that are happening today that is forming, like a level playing field across the world. Okay. So just just give give you examples, right? So 3d printing, we want to actually do 3d printing, I don’t have to worry about whether I’m actually getting super precision machining done, or super precision assembly done, and so on. That used to be like the preserve of the West, right? So I just print the whole thing, right, with just a command, like the way you would print something on paper. Right. And similarly, electrification, so I don’t have to have these fuel tanks, and then these fuel pumps, and then the plumbing, and all that stuff. I just started run wires, which is lot easier. Right? So fundamentally, for now to take a plane, there are lot many plane companies around the world, making small and large screens, right, yeah. But the number of engine companies is actually very, very few, right. So if you were to throw the engine out of the equation, it’s possible for us to actually think about making a plane and then put a battery in and run wires, and then connect them to motors and the propellers. Now, the last bit is things like carbon composite manufacturing has now become more commonplace and more commoditized. So you have people selling you what’s called as pre Brexit, you have to actually lay up on molds and then make parts and then you can assemble them, and so on. So 1015 years back carbon composites was extremely niche, and it’s very expensive. Yeah, right. It’s no longer the case. Right? So I mean, it is more expensive than metal, but we won’t actually reduce the weight. And it’s now doable, right? So and similarly, things like digital twins, right. So something called digital twins like or essentially to do something digital, right. So simulate the entire aircraft environment, like the flow fields and the structures, everything is now much more commonplace than what it used to be about 10 years, 15 years back. So things have changed in the last five to 10 years. That makes it a level playing field across the globe. That’s one thing. The second thing, for example, I think the Indian Space story is fairly well known. But the Indian aeronautical story is actually less well known around the world. But pretty much all the majors like whether it’s Airbus, Boeing, Pratt and Whitney, or GE, or Rolls Royce, all of them actually have their r&d divisions in India. India actually has the largest such workforce, on engines and Applin anywhere in the world. And this is kind of like the best get best kept secret. I didn’t know that in addition to this, we have the Indian government actually plumbing, plowing money on making fighter fighter planes and jet engines and all that stuff. Anyway. Right. So all of these things have been happening for and if you look at the military side, right, So India is actually the largest importer of military equipment in the world. And we do license production of French aircraft, Russian aircraft, American aircraft, so you tell me whatever it is, we actually buy them and then we get licenses to produce them. Right. So all of the manufacturing Korean In addition, we have more of the recent ones like Tatas who actually are doing Boeing competence and Lockheed components and all those things in India, right. That’s
Michael Waitze 39:12
not a big surprise. But yeah. So how big is your company right now? How many people? We are like about 50 Plus? Oh, wow. That’s big. And most of them come from the Chennai area. I mean, you seem very committed to this. Coming into what? Chennai, like your hometown?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 39:29
Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. So we got to do what’s good for the company.
Michael Waitze 39:33
Yeah. Right. What I mean, there’s an incredible population of super smart, very well educated people there as well, right? It’s not just like,
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 39:39
the thing about Chennai is not exactly Chennai, it’s about IIT Madras. Yeah, exactly. That was my point. Yeah, very, very large startup ecosystem, which is all deep tech. Yep. And as I said, in my own center, we have all these other companies like the rocket company, the micro gas turbine, you know, the ways to fuel all of those companies, which are all like super deep tech. It’s something that Going for us. So it’s given us a lot of credibility. And I think it’s important for us to actually work out of a very credible academic institutions so that we can command the respect of people around for getting things like certification or any kind of collaboration that we want. Right. So that’s, that’s the primary purpose of actually positioning ourselves in Chennai. Yeah. But we have a very diverse team that coming from all over India. And they are here primarily to share the vision and the passion of actually making electric vehicles for urban areas mobility.
Michael Waitze 40:35
Yeah, it’s a great idea. Is there some similarity before I let you go between the gathering of a startup ecosystem around IIT, Madras and what’s happened in Boston around MIT and in Silicon Valley around Stanford and Berkeley?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 40:50
Right. So I think the Silicon Valley story is much bigger than the Boston thing that you talk about.
Michael Waitze 40:56
Right? So it is now it wasn’t always that way, by the way, because I agree.
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 40:59
Absolutely. And, and the reason I brought that up is because the mirror here in India is Bangalore, Bangalore, India cynic Silicon Valley. So you will see a lot of that kind of thing happening in Bangalore. So it’s it’s very fair for us to actually compare what we’re doing here with MIT, except that I think the kind of scale that you’re talking about, we’re not really seeing that happening in MIT. Right? So making making rockets, planes, engines, and all of these things, particularly in one place. Right? So I haven’t even seen that happen anywhere else in the world.
Michael Waitze 41:28
Got it. I just wanted to understand what the similarities were and what the differences were. I really appreciate that. Satya Chakravarthy, a co founder of ePlane.ai. I’m super interested in this. I really want to hear more. Once you build the model that you’re building now, get it flying and then come back on and tell us more. Is that cool?
Satyanarayanan Chakravarthy 41:52
I’ll be keen on coming back to thank you very much. Thanks a lot. Thank you.