KAWARTHA LAKES-You could say Brandon Robinson has flying in his DNA. His grandfather was a military bomber pilot in WW2, his dad Eric Brian Robinson built and flew planes most of his life. “I grew up on Balsam Lake, when I was a kid there would be a couple airplanes, one parked on the shore and one tied up to the dock at the lake on floats.” Robinson explains. “My first flight I was 6 months old as my dad tells it.”
Robinson went on to the Royal Military College in Kingston, enrolled as a pilot in the Airforce in 1997 and took pilot training. He was selected as an F18 pilot and started flying F18’s in 2005, taking part in a couple of tours on front line squadrons. Robinson also took the Canadian version of the Top Gun course, for the select few that can hack it. Later he was an instructor at one of the operation training units, teaching other hot shots how to fly F18’s. In the interim he earned an MBA from Royal Roads University and an Engineering Degree.
He recently retired from the regular force but is still in the Reserves and still loves to fly the F18. But his latest passion is Horizon Aircraft. “We are developing a new prototype, a hybrid, electic powered airplane.” Robinson says. “It’s also amphibious, which we are excited about.”
It’s called the X3 and it is impressive. The idea began to take shape about ten years ago. “My father is an exceptional engineer, lifetime pilot, he’s been building airplanes since he was knee high to a grasshopper.” Robinson says with a chuckle. “One day a gentlemen came to him, he owned a custom engineering shop back then that did custom modifications for folks on aircraft, things that other folks couldn’t do, my dad would be able to figure it out. Things like put in an new engine, put different wings on, you name it, he could do it.”
That client wanted a very highly modified seaplane but the Senior Robinson said he had a better idea, they could build a whole new airplane. And that’s what they set out to do. “Electric motors and batteries aren’t quite there yet where we have a practical way of using pure electric motors to power aircraft. “So our hybrid electic powered airplane is more like a Tesla style where we have a conventional motor and a brand new state-of-the-art electric motor working together.” he explains.
Robinson says an advanced algorithm will figure out exactly how much electric power to use and how much conventional power to use. The result will be a lot cleaner, a lot quiter a lot more efficient sort of travel.
Noise pollution is starting to become an issue around some very populated airports and air travel is considered a significant contributor to greenhouse gasses. “With a hybrid electric airplane you can almost take-off purely on electric power with a conventional motor almost making zero noise, so it’s like a silent take-off and landing.” Robinson says. “From a pollution perspective we’ve got anywhere from 30-50% reduction in green house gas emmission over short duration trips due to the fact that we are leveraging the power that’s in the batteries. The aircraft starts with full batteries and will land with a certain percentage of that charge left. You can re-charge at your destination or the aircraft can recharge itself.”
Robinson says the traditional aircraft of today use only a fraction of the power onboard during flight. “It’s interesting because with aircraft you only need high power with a couple of situations and then you need just normal power for the rest. So it’s inefficient to be carrying around a huge conventional motor just for take off and emergency overshoots etc where for the majority of the flight, like 95 % of the flight you really only need about half that power.”
The hybrid electric aircraft solves that problem because you have the electric component that gets you up to altitude and then the conventional motor keeps you at altitude then you can cycle the conventional motor and the electric motor back and forth to really increase efficiency according to Robinson. And by the time they go to production on the motor Robinsons thinks the batteries might have twice the capacity as they have right now. “It’s pretty impressive.”
The aircraft will also be amphibious meaning it can land in the water or on land but the X3 takes it a few steps further. “It can land on any grass strip, gravel, airfield as well as fields streams any body of water, snow, ice. We have a patented landing gear that allows it to do so and specifially with the landing gear in any configuration, up or down, it can land safely. If a pilot forgets and leaves his gear down bad things can happen in a normal amphibious aricraft. Not with the X3” Robinson says confidently.
From a safety perspective the hybrid model is also a step above according to Robinson. “If the conventional motor fails the system decouples automatically and the electric motor takes over. With a conventional system you have to find a landing spot right away, the plane turns into a glider, but with our system you have a back up battery power that’s left to be able to fly level for a while to find a good landing spot or fly back to your original point of departure/destination.” As a fighter pilot Robinson says he would be happy to have a back-up engine.
They hope to have a flying prototype complete in two years. “We have the actual air frame 75% complete, we have assembly drawings, we have parts that could be assembled in fairly short order, the hybrid electric engine is about 60% through the design at this point.” Robinson says. “Computer design, control systems, algorithms are all figured out.”
The prototype and eventual manufacturing of the aircraft will be done at the Lindsay airport. “It’s a pretty big deal for the region. We are hoping to close a deal in January and that will see manufacturing and tons of high-tech jobs moving in to Lindsay, which will be great.” Robinson explains. “Our entire business plan has up to 100 high-tech folks working on the project, full manufacturing out of the Lindsay Airport, which will be nice, and an infrastructure development plan which supports that, along with a high-tech research and development facility that our backers would like us to build.”
They’ve been working with Mike Skinner and John Gillis at the Peterborough Innovation Cluster to secure funding and expertise. “We’ve been very fortunate. Mike and John have been hugely supportive of the whole thing and connecting us with the right people and giving us advice along the way. I can’t say enough good things about them, they are making it happen.”
Gillis says they chose to work with Horizon for a number of reasons. “They have intellectual property and they fit our clean pipe energy sector with their new technology for electric motors for their hybrid aircraft. We thought it would be a perfect fit for us to help them and mentor them. Gillis says. “One thing we were able to do is with our contacts at Siemens in the aeronautical side, we were able to introduce them to Siemens so they could work together in partnership on the electric motor side.”
Horizon Aricraft hopes to start the first phase of the hiring process in February. “End of Feb we should have the next level of funding in the bank and then we are looking at a growth plan where we get up to speed in about three months. So between end of February and end of May we will really be looking to expand the team quite rapidly.”
He says there’s a five year plan in place for a team of up to 100 or more people. The best part for Brandon is he get’s to work with his dad every day. “He’s just a great guy, couldn’t meet a nicer guy and he’s also super talented. He’s the real genius behind the design.”
Pamela VanMeer is a veteran, award winning journalist. She won the prestigious RTDNA Ron Laidlaw Regional and National Award for Continuing Coverage of elder abuse in Long Term Care. She was a reporter/anchor at CHEX TV and CHCH in Hamilton before moving back home and starting Kawartha 411 News