Carlos Salaff and Pete Bitar Transcript

Clint Betts

Carlos and Pete, thank you so much for joining us. You're working on life-changing, humanity-changing stuff, LEO Flight. Tell me what led you to this? How did you get here? How did you get to the point where "I'm going to build a flying car”?

Carlos Salaff

Yeah, I'll tell you my background real quickly and then Pete can tell you his, and I think that they meet in the middle. But my background is in automotive design and since I was a little kid, I was fascinated with aircraft, with flight. My father's a classical musician and when I was a kid we were always on planes for the different events he was playing at.

And I just fell in love with the feeling of flight. And cars for me were an approximation of that experience, of travel and of speed. And I learned about the artistry that went into cars after high school and went into a career in automotive design under the umbrella of industrial design.

But I always had this dream in my mind, back of my mind of could this transfer in the future to other types of more advanced vehicles and could this transfer to a flying machine? And recently the tipping point has been happening with energy storage, with batteries, with propulsion systems. And propulsion is really where Pete comes in. He really is the tipping point on this, what really enables our vehicle to work.

I found him through a contest he's been involved in, called the Boeing GoFly Prize. And so he was highly visible from that and I looked into what he was doing with propulsion and I'd been sketching out ideas of designs but I knew that I needed the propulsion design chops to create something really transformative. Because I had a gut feeling that the big solution isn't these multi-copter, big, huge drone designs with many propellers, I always... Intuitively follows beyond that.

And what Pete was doing really caught my eye for like, "Wow, he's cracking the nut on this." And I reached out and we got to talking and we both merged on this idea of personal transportation. That's from my end of it, but maybe Pete can give you his background as well.

Clint Betts

Yeah, Pete.

Pete Bitar

My background, I was in defense for a long time. I had a defense company for about 14 years. We did military contracts doing solutions to roadside bombs and things like that. Built weapon systems that saved lives, not took them.

But we were heavy into electrics and things like that. But my passion has always been for aviation. I had started a small aviation advertising company back in the nineties and sold it off in the early two thousands and then had this passion to do personal vertical flight starting at about 2006. And I was trying various gas powered engine designs and just wasn't really going to work. That technology was hard to control, let alone loud and fumy and gas guzzling and all of that.

When I started working with drones, probably in 2011 or so, I started playing with some of these electric drones and they were very nascent at the time, but started developing some propulsion ideas. Learned what I could. We built a heavy lift drone that won a little competition in 2015.

I actually flew a person in a quadcopter in 2015 also. It was covered by Popular Science. There was some work I had done while I was running my defense company. I'd do these little side projects for personal flight, but mostly in the area of propulsion and just started iterating and learning through that. I sold my defense company in 2018, basically. Sold my building and the assets off and everything and had a little bit of money.

I started this company called Electric Jet Aircraft. The whole idea was to build personal electric jet propulsion driven wearable aircraft. So the idea of an electric jet pack was really core. I did a patent on that. The patent was awarded last year and in that time, I was able to basically build a few designs of the electric jet pack in addition to what I was doing for the GoFly competition, which was a slightly different approach, but still sort of an encapsulated propulsion system.

When Carlos called me and I thought, "This is perfect because if we can prove what I'm doing with an electric jet pack, a flying car is actually a little easier because you don't have to wear it. You don't have to carry it. It carries you." And Carlos and I, he's just the best partner in the world. We have just gotten along so great. I've never had a better partner to work with. We get so much done. We're both really good at what we do and compliment each other in our areas that we don't know stuff about. It's just been a perfect partnership.

We've been working together now for two and a half years and just super exciting work. His designs are just beautiful. And if I was to design a flying car, it wouldn't look anywhere near as cool as his. But at the same time, like you said, the propulsion system is at the heart of it and it makes the design flexibility possible.

And we really believe we've cracked a nut on the whole idea of a flying car. Between his design and my propulsion, the combined efforts of what we're trying to do, I think nobody's even close. I'm sure a lot of other flying car, air taxi companies talk the same way. The difference is that 95% of them are all doing basically a big drone slapped on an airplane concept and or an electric helicopter effectively.

And it's not what people see or envision when they think about a flying car for the future. It's just not. But we're actually doing it. We're actually flying stuff. We've gotten stuff off the ground with people in it and we feel like really we're just funding away from being able to get this dream into a reality and into the accessible car in every driveway dream is within reach now. That's the background.

Clint Betts

What are the barriers to success?

Pete Bitar

Oh, there's lots of them.

Clint Betts

Yeah, I would imagine.

Pete Bitar

I think the biggest ones I think we've already solved, which is does your idea work? And can you prove that it works? Computational power right now is high enough that you can design an airliner on a screen and be about 99% sure that when you fabricate it it's going to fly. That stuff does work. When you're talking about less conventional things like what we're trying to do, you really have to build it to prove it.

And we were able to raise a pre-seed round that got us funding to build our skeletal prototype. It doesn't have the skins on it, basically a full-scale single person prototype. And we've already been able to take off the ground with it, both empty and with a person in a cockpit. We've tethered it to this point because we only have one prototype, but we're hoping over the next few months, as funding comes in, we're able to test that and fly it around and do demonstrations with it just to prove the propulsion works.

Everything else is knowable. And so we've already validated the aerodynamics design with an outside firm. All of that's within reach. The big thing was I think solving the propulsion question, does it work? Will it work? Will it transition the way you want it to? All of that. And that's what we're in the process of solving now. But the other obvious biggest one, which is the hindrance to any company at this point is funding. Just having the resource.

I think what we've been able to do is be really efficient with what we have. And so that efficiency allows us to go a lot further on alot less than maybe others in the industry.

But that's still going to be a challenge going forward as we get further and further into this project. And I'll let Carlos—

Clint Betts

Yeah, Carlos... I was going to ask you Carlos, what has the response been from investors? And what is the pitch? I can't even imagine what it's like to raise money for something like this.

Carlos Salaff :

Piggybacking, or continuing, on what Pete was saying, that oftentimes the first questions out of people's mouths after "That's so cool" is, "What about regulations? What kind of pilot's license will I need? Where can I fly this?" All really good questions. And a lot of times we've found that investors who don't know much about the space get really freaked out by that because they don't have an understanding of the regulatory environment.

We have an amazing advisory board member named Sue Gardner who has an extensive background both as a pilot and as an administrator within the FAA. And she actually wrote the current sport pilot and drone laws, so she knows how to write the legislation, implement it, get it put into action. She's helping us to tailor our approach.

But what's really cool is that our vehicle itself really is... It's more practical, it's safer and it's more high-performance than both conventional aircraft and helicopters. Actually the certification process is simpler because we can show that this is safer around people and property to operate. And those are really the two big things that we have to be cognizant of and the FAA is really looking for.

And a lot of times also people don't know that even with conventional helicopters today, you can actually land just about anywhere with one. There are restrictions around major cities, like here in New York City there are designated spots for that. But if you want to land at someone's house or in a business or something, as long as you have permission most of the time from the landowner you can do it. People don't realize that.

But obviously a helicopter is extremely expensive and complicated and it causes a lot of environmental disturbance and it's dangerous in many aspects. What we're offering is a much safer, more human-centered solution for that kind of door-to-door travel. So the investors that do see that are extremely excited about it because they see the potential for mass adoption. They see this could really be car 2.0.

And that personal ownership plus enhanced fleet use, first responders, how could it change surgeons getting to the operating room or a first responder at a fire or some kind of other emergency or tourism? How can this open up possibilities where you can take off and land an aircraft and you could get to places that never before have been accessible by car or foot or aircraft? It really opens up all sorts of possibilities and the investors that do get it are excited.

Some of our investors come and turn wrenches because they're really hands-on and really excited about the vision. We love all of our investors, they really share the vision with us. It's been awesome.

Clint Betts

How often are you asked this question, "Why isn't Elon doing this?"

Carlos Salaff

Not that often.

Pete Bitar

He's busy right now.

Clint Betts

He's busy right now, that's for sure.

Carlos Salaff

He's busy doing some interesting things on Twitter. But he has said that he, I believe, has a preference for the boring company stuff and going underground. He has concerns about how things are managed in the air, but we think all those things are addressable and that it's going to be a long time before air congestion is an issue. But not that we shouldn't plan for that. But that it's a lot bigger up there. Pete, did you want to answer that one? Kind of a fun—

Clint Betts

Yeah, Pete, I'd love to have your feedback on why Tesla or Elon isn't—

Carlos Salaff

Yeah, I'd love to hear—

Clint Betts

Working on this.

Pete Bitar

It's funny, my company's called Electric Jet and there's a line in Ironman 2 when there's a little cameo of Elon Musk in Monte Carlo talking to Pepper Potts and he talks to Tony and he says, "Hey, I've got an idea for an electric jet." And Tony says, "We'll make that work." I've always found that interesting. He's got this idea for more like an electric corporate jet, like an airliner kind of jet. Not what we're doing.

But I personally see what we are doing as something that an automotive company, and whether it's Tesla or somebody else, would find very interesting as an acquisition target at some point when we're ready. I think that's a definite possibility as an exit strategy. I think Elon may be just sitting back to see which one wins, which design idea wins, and then just swoop in and acquire it just like he did Twitter. Well, hopefully better than Twitter.

But at that point I think we're going to be in a position to maybe scale through partnership with a larger company. It may not be, "Why isn't Elon doing this?" It's when "Might Elon do this?" Kind of thing. It's interesting too that Elon didn't invent rockets and Elon didn't invent the electric car. He invented nothing in terms of the core technologies. What he did, and I'm sure they've got lots of patents and inventions around the idea of manufacturing, around the idea of low-costing something, getting something to where you can produce it. And that's really the advantage of somebody like Elon.

A lot of people credit him with things that aren't actually true about him. He didn't invent the stuff that he's doing, at its root. But what he did was he invented the ways in which it's possible to become mass adopted. And I think that's critical here. Will there be millions of flying cars? It'll take a long time to where you have the numbers of automotive production like you have for ground vehicles in air vehicles. That's a long ways off.

There's an inherent fear of flying for a lot of people. A lot of people will never fly. There's going to be a natural ceiling for how big this industry can get. The question is, is that interesting enough to somebody like an Elon Musk?

And can we use that level eventually of production capability where we're producing hundreds of thousands of something versus a couple thousand of something? Keep in mind that aviation, the largest manufacturer of just sheer numbers of aircraft are somewhere between Boeing and Cirrus Aircraft. Cirrus makes single-engine planes and some small light jets. Boeing obviously makes big airliners. Neither of them make any more than 4 or 500 units a year. That's their production line.

And then you go to automotive and on the low end you've got Lamborghini, Ferrari, they make between 8 to 10 thousand units a year. Somewhere between 510,000 there's this gap. And that's where we want to be, be in that two to five, maybe six, seven, 8,000 eventually where we're at the low end of automotive, but definitely the high end of aviation production. If you sold 10,000 aircraft a year and distributed them around the world, the likelihood that two of them would ever even see each other is really small. The potential for this market is massive, even with the inherent ceiling of the fact that not everyone will want one.

Clint Betts

I wonder how far away we are from 10,000 people. That exact thing, how far away are we from 10,000 of these distributors around the world and they're working and all of that?

Pete Bitar

If we have our way, probably eight to 10 years.

Clint Betts

That's not that far off.

Pete Bitar

No, we intend to deliver the first hundred units in 2025. That's our goal. And we intend to get to production of about 2000 units by 2028, per year.

Clint Betts

What is driving the two of you to take this big of a swing? Because this is a massive swing.

Carlos Salaff

It's a massive opportunity, I would say. And we have a vision, we have a path to get there and we don't want to watch someone else do it. We feel like as much as people go, "That sounds too good to be true," I think people also hold the other thought in their mind that this is inevitable. And that vision of the Jetsons that people have dreamed of since the fifties and before is really a cultural dream that we have, that's like "Someone's going to do it."

And like all the predictions of submarines and rockets and AI and all this stuff, it's all happening because the dream had to proceed, the physical manifestation of it. We just want to have fun and do this. We love this work. We absolutely love trailblazing and creating this, it's just been a blast.

And by the way, Pete, thanks for the kind words and I think it shows how in sync we are that we both have Christmas trees of some sort in the left-hand corner.

Clint Betts

I know, you're both very festive.

Carlos Salaff

We're very festive.

Clint Betts

You're very festive today. Hey, how long until these things just drive themselves? Or fly themselves, I should say.

Carlos Salaff

Longer. In the US it is going to take a while longer. You already see demos happening in other countries of fully-autonomous vehicles, but we've chosen to have a human pilot on board and to go semi-autonomous at first and wait for the technology to mature and for culture to acculturate to get comfortable with the idea of having a fully autonomous object you get into and it whisks you off somewhere.

Clint Betts

I imagine the number—

Carlos Salaff

I was just going to say that, one, to get in the game sooner before that's ready and transition into that. We'll be able to use the same vehicle and have it be fully autonomous.

Clint Betts

Yeah, I imagine the biggest barrier running into with investors and then future and potential customers is safety. I'm sure you're getting tons of safety questions. How safe is this? Is it safer compared to an automobile, is it less safe? How do you answer those questions just around like, "Hey, I want to live past this flight"?

Carlos Salaff

Safety is an area where we really shine. As I said, I don't know if I actually said it before we started recording, but our vehicle really is safer than a conventional airplane and safer than a helicopter. It doesn't use rotors on top the way a helicopter does. So it's safer to be around for one. It's safer to stand next to because we're using what Pete has innovated, this clustered electric jet system. It's internal to the vehicle, it's embedded in the wings and so there's no exterior spinning objects that could harm you.

There's no danger that the vehicle could tip over like the Pan Am Building disaster in 1977 here in New York where a helicopter tipped over, and the rotor blades hit the ground and five people were killed and more injured. You don't have those kinds of dangers around our aircraft.

We have incredible redundancy in our system. System that Pete's invented is going to have 200 of these small electric jets that are really small, very hard for any kind of object to go into them like a conventional propeller or jet engine. And there's incredible redundancy. You can lose a third of them, is that right Pete? I believe you can lose a third and still stay in the air.

Pete Bitar

Yeah.

Carlos Salaff

We also, we're using wings. Another thing Pete allows is a lot of flexibility in the aerodynamic design of our vehicle. So we actually do have aerodynamic lift that we're creating with the body of the vehicle. Unlike a multirotor drone type craft that has no kind of wings and if something's damaged one of the four propellers goes out, you're hosed. You're going to probably spin out and fall because there's no aerodynamic lift. We do have an aerodynamic glide if something were to happen, some catastrophic thing that knocked out all of the electrical and the jets went out, you'd be able to glide.

And we're also going to have a ballistic shoot on top, which is possible as well without having rotor blades that could get tangled in the absence of those. Airbag systems on top of that, emergency flotation. We're looking at a retro rocket system as well to shed energy when you get near the ground, something like the Blue Origin spacecraft, when it got close to the ground, it had those retro rockets. There are several layers of safety to the vehicle that you don't get with conventional aircraft.

Clint Betts

Pete, can you speak more to the technology and this propulsion thing that you touched on before, how far along that is and everything else you were working on there?

Pete Bitar

We developed our clustered electric jet system a while ago and then we were awarded a DARPA contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop an electric jetpack and the propulsion system for it. And so we were able to hone down on the specific issues necessary to have these clustered electric jets all act as a single engine. Even though they're individuals and they're like five inches, four and a half inches in diameter, there's an array of them and they all see themselves as part of one engine from a controls perspective, but they operate independently. You have inherent redundancies.

The engine itself gets a signal from the flight computer just like a single engine would, but the array would get that same signal. All the engines would operate together under that signal. If you had any reason for any one of them or two of them to go out, they don't affect the rest of them. You have the hive mind of this propulsion system distributed and it basically flies like a multi-copter.

Let's say a quadcopter has four engines, well, we have four decks of engines. And each deck of engines operates like a single engine for flight control, but then the redundancy is within each deck. And so if you lose an engine, the other engines will work just a little bit harder to make up for the thrust that's lost and it's inherent in the design architecture.

But yeah, each one is basically a little turbine. The reason we call them jets, we have little turbine blades and it's not a turbine in the technical sense, it's not moving a gas or using a gas to spin. It is actually an electric motor connected to these little metal fans. They're spinning it like 60,000 RPM inside a Coandă effect sleeve that produces what you would call a jet of air. It's not burning anything. There's no combustion, there's no compression, but you are getting that jet of air.

Just like a water jet. Anything that takes a large intake of air and compresses it through a sleeve and pushes it out at a higher speed is considered a jet. And so that's why we call this an electric jet. We're using this electric motor with these turbine type blades, not propellers, but actual little angled blades that are metal, spinning at very high RPM to accelerate that air and get net benefit effect of what you would have with just spinning a propeller.

And so each one is very efficient. We've been able to just absolutely tweak the heck out of these things and maximize efficiency. There are similar things in the hobby grade market. Same size engine would produce maybe eight pounds of thrust at best. And we're producing 11.6 out of ours, almost 50% more efficient than hobby grade. And what that allows us to do then is have these engines powered efficiently with batteries in a way that allows us to configure this so that it fits within an automotive footprint. And there's enough thrust there that we have plenty of redundancy at every corner of the propulsion system within every deck and the ability for one engine or multiple engines even to go out and the rest of them have enough net thrust to be able to make up that difference if there's any kind of a catastrophic failure.

And as Carlos described, our safety system is multilayered. Redundancy is an inherent thing. We can still fly again with 60 engines out of 200 out, which is preposterous to think you would have a third of your propulsion go out for any reason. But if it did, you would still be able to land comfortably, with a full payload by the way. And you also have the ability because of the fact that you're compact enclosed propulsion, you have the ability to use a ballistic parachute as Carlos mentioned. The redundancy of the electric jet propulsion system, in addition to the size and compact nature of it, make the other safety systems even possible.

Whereas if you have big propellers, you don't have that ability. Where is your ballistic parachute going to go? And atmospheric conditions being what they might be, even if you create whatever that blows your parachute above your propellers, if the aircraft tips or anything happens to the props, they can still go into the parachute and kill you. There's a lot of inherences that are associated with safety in the propulsion design.

Clint Betts

What have your conversations been like with regulators and governments?

Carlos Salaff

This is a good time actually I think to talk about our regulatory strategy. We have attended FAA meetings and we're part of ASTM, which is a group that creates standards that the FA adopts, that are recognized by the FAA and adopted by the FAA. The FAA is now creating a new category for aircraft that are more compact like ours, that are four people. Basically less risk as a result of less footprint and mass. And electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles eVTOL for short is what our vehicle could be considered because it is electric vertical take-off and landing, even though it's quite different in the way we do it from others.

eVTOL will become a bucket under this new regulatory structure and it'll not only allow you to get your pilot's license with only about 20 hours of training, but it will allow for limited commercial uses as well. Tourism. Say, aero photography, things like that.

That's a new latitude that's being offered within the framework of the law because the FAA is seeing these innovations in eVTOL aircraft and seeing that the law needs to adapt to it. That's essentially the certification path we'll be taking. If you wanted to fly one of our aircraft, you could do it under specialty sport aircraft licensing, but that extra layer of limited commercial use will be pretty cool.

And of course, there's the regular type certification path that could be a little down the road that would allow even broader commercial activity. We have a stepped plan to get where we're going with it.

Clint Betts

What are the environmental impacts, if any?

Carlos Salaff

I would say that we actually have favorable environmental impact, obviously being zero emissions and electric, that's a big one. Lost Pete. But the fact that the vehicle is more automotive in size. We're also developing a fast-charging unit that it's a landing pad you can land on. It's called the VertiStop. And you'll be able to essentially place that on a parking garage, an existing parking garage, existing building, parking lot.

Environmentally speaking, our infrastructural footprint is very low. We don't have to do heavy construction to create big Verti ports and essentially tiny airports in urban centers and things like that. Not only is the vehicle itself zero emissions, but the infrastructure to support our vehicle can be miniaturized and have less of a footprint on the environment, on resources, on materials to actually achieve scale at a large scale.

Something I didn't mention either that you may have been wondering too is just what Pete was saying about technology and how our system is unique. Those little electric jets favor high speed. We have a big advantage in that we can travel at 200 miles an hour and get 250 miles of range with a single charge with current lithium-ion batteries.

And so as batteries improve, we'll be able to improve that a lot, maybe double that amount in the near future. It opens the door when you combine that plus the infrastructure and charging solutions to say not only go from New York to Boston in one hop, but LA to San Francisco with one fast charge in the middle in an hour and a half. Then you don't need to go to the airport because why get in a car to drive to the airport to go through the whole process at the airport, get on the plane, go to your destination, then get in another car and go.

It'll be really efficient. And that also is an environmental benefit. People aren't getting on airliners and burning jet fuel because that's a huge pollutant. There are several layers to it.

Clint Betts

How big is your team?

Carlos Salaff

Want to take this one Pete?

Pete Bitar

It's not a hard question because you're looking at them.

Carlos Salaff

This is our core team right here.

Pete Bitar

Yeah, this is it. We have some part-time people, a lot of vendors that do some of our fabrication work and things that we sub out to for welding and some of the hardware stuff and manufacturing of our components. But other than that, this is it right now. Part of the reason we're trying to raise capital, we had some interns and a couple part-timers over the summer that were full-time during our big build for the LX-1 and got that flying. But now that we're ready to go into the next stage, we're trying to raise capital to build our full prototype, hire permanent staff and establish some facilities that we can use to do everything we need to do.

Clint Betts

Like I said at the beginning, I can't think of too many more interesting companies to be working on or problems to be solving than flying cars. I wish you both the best of luck and we'll have you on again I'm sure as things progress. But seriously, thanks so much for taking a few minutes with us here today and explaining what you're working on. It's really, really incredible.

Carlos Salaff

Thank you.

Pete Bitar

Thank you very much.

Carlos Salaff

Thank you for the opportunity as well.

Pete Bitar

Also for your audience, check out leoflight.com. That's just L-E-O-F-L-I-G-H-T.com. Check out our videos and just catch up and keep up with what we're doing. We update it pretty regularly.

Clint Betts

Awesome. We'll put that link in the description too. Thanks so much guys.

Carlos Salaff

Thank you, Clint.

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