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Airbus nurturing cutting-edge Indian start-ups to build super aircraft

Engineers at Airbus Bizlab in Bengaluru. The plane maker's accelerator programme supports cutting-edge Indian start-ups to speed up transformation of innovative ideas into valuable businesses and even use their technologies in their own organisations
Ranjita Ravi is passionate about riding high-performance superbikes. In fact, it is a criteria for recruitment at her start-up Orxa Energies to be able to ride bikes. This level of passion is helping Orxa design and develop performance electric motorcycles and special lithium-ion battery packs that are able to manage the specific challenges of these vehicles, such as longevity, thermals and weight. Orxa’s products have caught the attention of Airbus, as the world’s largest planemaker sees the applications of the company's innovation in the aerospace sector, especially drones or unmanned aerial vehicles. It is nurturing Orxa through its Airbus BizLab accelerator programme in Bengaluru. Orxa is among several cutting-edge Indian start-ups that Airbus is supporting through BizLab to speed up transforming innovative ideas into valuable businesses and even use their technologies inside their organisation. These start-ups offer a wide variety of solutions in areas such as satellite imagery services, artificial intelligence, UAVs, data analytics, blockchain and cybersecurity.

“We are identifying technologies or solutions that might be relevant for Airbus and see how we can mentor these start-ups into adapting these technologies for our needs,” said Siddharth Balachandran, Airbus BizLab Leader, India.

For instance, Bengaluru-based Orxa sees that its battery technology could be used in drones because there is a growing requirement of power in UAVs as they become more prevalent in areas such as services, agriculture and defence. “This is one of the projects that we are exploring with (Airbus) and we are doing bench-level testing,” says Ranjita Ravi, co-founder and director at Orxa. “Electric flights is one of our long-term objectives.”

In neighbouring Chennai, aerospace firm AgniKul Cosmos, which is part of the Airbus BizLab programme, is building an orbital class launch vehicle that can take small satellites to space. It takes about six months to make a small satellite, but to launch it in the space, an organisation might have to wait up to two years. It has to rely on and find an empty spot on bigger launch vehicles such as Indian space agency Isro’s  PSLV and GSLV as well as Elon Musk-led SpaceX’s Falcon 9. “We aim to reduce that waiting time from two years to almost two weeks,” said Srinath Ravichandran, co-founder and chief executive at AgniKul, which plans to launch its first vehicle in 2021. Also a small satellite costs about $10,000 to make, and to send it into the space one needs to spend about $50,000 apart from the huge amount of capital which gets invested in the waiting time. AgniKul says it aims to reduce the actual cost of launching the satellite by one third to around $15,000. AgniKul is eyeing Airbus’ defence and space division and is talks to collaborate on some of the plane maker's programmes. Through BizLab, AgniKul was able to reach and meet senior officials at European rocket maker Ariane. It is now in discussions for potential opportunities, such as collaboration to develop rocket engines.

Airbus BizLab offers an equity-free cash funding option of up to 45,000 Euros to implement a proof of concept. The payment is subject to the successful delivery of a prototype in accordance with a specified use case defined with an Airbus function. Selected start-ups are also provided with a voucher of 5,000 Euros for the travel and accommodation costs during the programme.

“Lot of these companies have great technologies and ideas, but to bring a business model (around them) is where they struggle, that is the area where we help them,”  Anand E Stanley, president and managing director, Airbus India and South Asia, told Business Standard. “We are trying to look at some of the problems in the (aerospace) ecosystem and then go out and scout for technologies and solutions.” 

One such company is Neewee, a firm based out of Bengaluru, which develops industrial analytics software for the manufacturing industry. Airbus’ manufacturing facility in Hamburg, Germany is using Neewee’s software, which increases cost efficiencies across the supply chain, improves delivery rates and reduces quality issues. It is now expanding the solution to other plants. “BizLab was a big game changer for us,” said Harsimrat Bhasin, co-founder and chief operating officer at Neewee.

From bolts and rivets to engines and seats an Airbus aircraft like A320 consists of three million parts produced by thousands of suppliers. Flutura an AI solutions company focused on improving operational efficiency has started working with many such suppliers. What makes firms like Flutura relevant is that Airbus forecasts that the global commercial aviation industry will require 37,400 new aircraft at a value of $5.8 trillion over the next 20 years. “Airbus has to scale multifold to meet this demand, they are looking at a lot of AI applications to bring efficiency into their plants,” says Srikanth Muralidhara, co-founder and chief customer officer at Flutura. “How do you get the visibility even about the small screw that gets manufactured in Peenya (Bengaluru industrial area).” 

Another young firm Scapic is working with Airbus to help field technicians solve technical issues in an aircraft with the help of experienced engineers who may be located in some other part of the world. A field technician is able to do this by creating a visualisation of the problem using Scapic’s augmented reality and virtual reality technologies and showcase it to the senior engineer. “Traditionally an experienced engineer has to be flown down (to solve the problem),” says Namrata N, sales and marketing lead at Scapic.

Globally, Airbus BizLab has supported Jetlite a firm that increases passenger comfort and decreases jetlag by innovative use of the existing cabin lighting system.

Also, Navblue, an Airbus subsidiary has signed on Chennai-based Stelae Technologies, an enterprise software company to enhance aeronautical data services quality and consistency. This includes enabling faster introduction to the market of the next generation fully data-driven and connected electronic flight bag (EFB) solution which provides a full suite of ground and onboard software applications and services. An agreement has also been signed between Airbus Aerial and Navi Mumbai-based drone solutions provider Airpix for a joint go-to-market in India to provide geo-analytics solutions and imagery services in the country.

Apart from working with small firms, Airbus had collaborated with German automaker Volkswagen's Audi and Italian engineering firm Italdesign to create the prototype of a flying taxi which combines a self-driving electric car with a passenger drone. It is also working on Vahana, the all-electric, self-piloted vertical takeoff and landing aircraft developed at A³, the Silicon Valley outpost of Airbus, which last year announced the successful completion of its first full-scale flight test.

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