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Just Asking for a Friend… What is DarkAero?

In this Fireside Chat with the Xperts, hosts Megan Bergsma and Dr. Bill Cardoso talk with composites and aerospace Xpert, Keegan Karl of DarkAero.  Bill asks some pretty pointed questions about DarkAero’s kit aircraft project, though allegedly on behalf of a friend.

Well friends, this is a pretty fun conversation.  We learned about the DarkAero from their fantastic YouTube channel, where they have shared openly about the development of DarkAero 1, their project to develop their own kit aircraft.  The project is really interesting and Keegan shares a compelling story of he and his two brothers (and partners) perusing their passion.  We were excited to dispatch Creative Electron’s X-ray Van to DarkAero’s headquarters in Madison, WI recently, and we learn a bit about what they discovered when they first examined some of their composite parts under X-ray.

In addition to their airframe kits, we learned that DarkAero has taken what they have learned about composites design and manufacturing and crafted a curriculum for a composites class.  Classes are available to would be kit aircraft builders, as well as industry professionals looking to explore composites manufacturing.  Dr. Cardoso seemed to show a pretty keen interest in these classes as well, though again, he was probably just asking for a friend.

Should Bill’s “friend” actually build a DarkAero kit, we’ll be sure to have them on for a chat.  Enjoy this conversation and be sure to register for upcoming Fireside Chats with the Xperts and view our archives here.


 

Transcript:

Megan Bergsma:
All right. Hi, and welcome back to another episode of Fireside Chat, a chat with experts. Today we have our head honcho of creative, Dr. Bill Cardoso. And I’m assuming I’m the official host, so I’m Megan Bergsma. There is a debate as to whether or not I demoted David Kruidhoff as host. So I guess… Officially say it out there, I am the official host. So he’ll take my place when I can’t be here.

Megan Bergsma:
I guess.

Bill Cardoso:
You know, that’s all that matters.

Megan Bergsma:
I just got thrown into this role and I haven’t left. All right and for today’s topic, it’s all about aerospace and how X-ray can be a good part of that into the inspection of it. And we have a really cool feature guest, Keegan Karl from DarkAero. So welcome Keegan. All right.

Keegan Karl:
Thanks for having me.

Megan Bergsma:
Yeah, anytime. And you’re tuning in from Wisconsin, right?

Keegan Karl:
Right. Wisconsin.

Megan Bergsma:
Oh great. So I’m just going to kick this off and just ask, how did DarkAero get started and why DarkAero? Where is that name originated?

Keegan Karl:
So DarkAero started officially back in 2017. The company consists of myself and my two other brothers. We started moonlighting it a little bit before that when we had our full-time engineering jobs, but we went full time on it in 2017. We’re an aerospace company, so we’re building a kit aircraft. What that means is that we build no more than 49%, and then we shift that as a series of parts to a customer and the customer assembles it into a complete aircraft. The name DarkAero came about… Because when we first started the company we were working in secret.

Keegan Karl:
So we’re working in the dark or moonlighting, if you will, but then also we have a collective interest in space and space exploration and just adventure. And there’s a lot out there in the universe that we don’t know about, including dark matter, dark energy. And then a lot of what we do is with carbon fiber, which is a black material. So we thought it was just a very fitting name for us, DarkAero and hence aerospace. So that’s how it came about.

Bill Cardoso:
So-

Megan Bergsma:
You said you started this… Oh, go ahead, Bill.

Megan Bergsma:
All right. So you did mention that you started this company with your brothers. So all of you are engineers and when you came about starting this company with them, you’re like, let’s just do this. How does that work with all of you being engineers and all of you being related?

Keegan Karl:
Yeah, we’re all two years apart, we all went to school and got different degrees in engineering. Ryley did aerospace, and then I did mechanical, and River did electrical. That wasn’t a planned event, it was just our areas that we were interested in. We all, after graduation went and worked in industry, we actually didn’t even live in the same states, but then we all somehow ended up back in Madison, Wisconsin, which is where we started DarkAero. And Ryley was building a different experimental kit aircraft. When we had all graduated and we were separated and not in the same city, we made it a point to still get together and go to the air show up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, that they do each year. And we’d have conversations about different aircraft and different aspirations for maybe a better aircraft or one that was more desirable, at least from our perspective.

Keegan Karl:
And we were waiting around, each year we wanted to see that aircraft and then we never did, so around the same time we’d all ended up back in the same area. And that generated a lot more hangout sessions and discussions about starting a company, specifically an aerospace company. And we thought maybe there’d be something there given our different diverse backgrounds or backgrounds in engineering. So, we started moonlighting it, experimenting with carbon fiber and just testing out different materials and started building some of the equipment for it. And then as we got further, further along and gained more confidence in what we were doing in the direction we were heading, we decided to jump in on it full time.

Megan Bergsma:
That’s awesome. So basically have brothers go into engineering, right. Right, Bill?

Bill Cardoso:
Exactly, it helps. What is that aircraft you’re looking for, that you couldn’t find in Oshkosh?

Keegan Karl:
So the aircraft market, there’s different, I guess, categories, you can break it up into. So you have the commercial aircraft market, which is probably what most people are familiar with. So your big Boeings and your Airbus, but the aircraft that you get on and fly commercially. Then there’s general aviation, that includes private jets and small little two-seat aircraft or four-seat aircraft that are more personalized. So when we would go to the air show they had a whole spectrum of aircraft but we were interested in personal aircraft or a private aircraft. We never thought we could afford a private jet, that would be ideal and really awesome. But if you look at more, I guess, humble type of aircraft, like a two seat aircraft, something you train in to get a private pilots license, they’re not very modernized if you will. They’re decades old technology. The design was made and certified a long time ago, but that’s where the experimental market is interesting and exciting.

Keegan Karl:
Because there’s a lot less FAA restrictions as far as what you can do to bring an aircraft to market and fly it yourself. So when we go to the air show, we’re looking for something that was a little bit more modern, had modern materials, was using modern technology to build it, had a little bit more speed and range. And that was what we were after. And we just didn’t see anything that really caught our eye. And not trying to knock previous kits. It’s very hard to bring a new kit aircraft to market, but the build process becomes a big portion of ownership. And you can spend a lot of time building an aircraft. And for the aircraft that are more speed and range oriented, they’re typically composite aircraft. And that composite work can be very labor intensive and very intimidating. So our goal is to create a new modernized aircraft that use more modern materials, but then also create a more enjoyable build experience at the same time.

Bill Cardoso:
Yeah. That’s so cool.

Megan Bergsma:
I can ask a question.

Bill Cardoso:
Huh?

Megan Bergsma:
I was just wanting to ask a question after you, so…

Bill Cardoso:
No, go ahead, ask the question. Well, I have too many questions. We going to be here all day, don’t worry about it.

Megan Bergsma:
So you did mention that your particular aircraft is composed of carbon fiber. Can you tell us what is the advantages and disadvantage of that composite when crafting your aircraft?

Keegan Karl:
Carbon fiber is awesome because it’s really lightweight, it’s really strong and it’s really stiff. But then, I’ve heard this saying and I’m going to steal it, but when you’re designing a part that’s made out of carbon fiber, you’re not only designing the part, but you’re designing the material at the same time. So you have to combine carbon fiber with the resin and then you have to cure them and then it becomes a final part. And in the process of doing that, there’s a lot of different variables that affect the strength and stiffness of that part. So the advantages of it, is that you get a really lightweight strong part, but then the disadvantage is that you have to do a lot of work up-front to verify that that material is, I guess, up to your standards.

Keegan Karl:
When you buy a piece of metal, it’s already been standardized to a 6061-T6. Everyone’s already agreed on its material properties and it’s curing and tempering. But with composite it’s like the wild west, there’s still a lot of variability there in terms of what kind of end product that you can get. So you have to do a lot work up-front to verify that. So that would be a big disadvantage. So there can be a lot of development time that goes into that.

Bill Cardoso:
My question was related to the experience, right. So I buy a kit for example, and what kind of garage space do I need and how much time is going to take me to… From the point I get a crate to my garage… Asking for others, right. Asking for a friend. To the point where I’m flying an airplane.

Keegan Karl:
So the problem that currently exists with kit aircraft, is that if you want a kit aircraft that’s very fast and has high speed, long range, theres not a lot to select from, and if you are selecting one the build process is pretty messy.

Keegan Karl:
A lot of your work is just more assembly, like a Lego kit or an Ikea kit, if you will. For a garage space we design it to be built in a modern or standard two car garage. So if your garage is 20′ x 20′, you should be able to build it in your garage and then do final assembly at an airport. So eventually you’re going to want to hangar anyways for the aircraft. So that’s where you attach your wing and then get everything bolted together for the final stage. So you’d be able to trailer it there, to the airport at that point. Total build time, we’re targeting around 1500 hours. It’s considered a quick build kit, so a lot of it is just bolts and bonding items together.

Bill Cardoso:
And are you going to ship with a glass cockpit or is that up to user to figure out what kind of instrumentation you are going to put on the plane?

Keegan Karl:
So from our end, we provide all of the composite structures. So that includes the wing, the airframe, the landing gear and the hardware and the adhesives to put that all together. And then purchase separately. We have relationships built up with other suppliers. So the engine, you’d have to purchase separate. And then the instrumentation, like the avionics you’d have to purchase separate. And then the wheels and brakes would be separate as well. The canopy is something that we provide along with the kit. So we’re not experts on engine manufacturing or avionics, so we leave that to the experts. And that’s one area where customers can customize their kit a little bit. If they want a VFR setup or an IFR setup, they can customize their avionics to fit their needs.

Bill Cardoso:
Thank you.

Megan Bergsma:
Or we can build our mini version of John Travolta’s, like jet.

Bill Cardoso:
Well he has 737 and we’re not going to go there. It’s nuts. That’s pretty cool.

Megan Bergsma:
Yeah. We’re not going to go there yet. We’re not there yet, but big dreams. I definitely want to go to the part where we were able to send our X-ray van over to you guys. And I just wanted to give you an opportunity to tell our followers, how did that experience go and what did you find out? What was your learning experience?

Keegan Karl:
Yeah, they were great. We had a couple samples ready to go and we didn’t really know what to expect because we never X-rayed any of our parts before. So we had a sampling of different parts from some of our metal machine components to our carbon fiber structures. And it was insightful being able to essentially look inside of them. So we make these… I should have grabbed one before we got on the chat, but we make these honeycomb sandwich panels, for example. So it’s a layer of carbon fiber and then a honeycomb structure, like what you see with a cardboard box, it has the kind of wavy material in between.

Keegan Karl:
And then it has another layer of carbon fiber on the bottom. So it creates the sandwich panel and once you close that off, you can’t see inside of it. So it’s sealed up. So we were able to examine a couple of those that we had made that we had brought to air shows in different vender events. And we had actually used it as a sample for people to try to break. It’s really light and it’s really stiff. So people tried to bend it over their knee and stuff. And what we could see through the X-ray, was on the edges of the material was a little bit of minor buckling in the honeycomb material. And we would never been able to see that had we… Unless we had destroyed the part itself. So that was interesting to see. And it gave us some more insight into a potential failure mode, like a buckling failure mode, for example.

Keegan Karl:
And then we have some other parts that we actually make with a combination of milled carbon and epoxy, almost like 3D printing. And that process that we use can introduce voids in the material. So we use it for some of our nonstructural cosmetic cockpit parts and we scan one of those. And what we found is that there’s some minor air bubbles that have been introduced into the part, but visually you look at that part, you can’t see that. So if you ever wanted to take that process and apply it to something more for a structural component or minor loaded component, that’d be a really good machine to have to inspect that and understand if there’s any type of voids in there. So all in all, it was really insightful being able to take a look inside of our parts.

Bill Cardoso:
Yeah, sometimes you find things you don’t want to find, right. That’s a problem.

Keegan Karl:
Yeah. And in fact, we scanned one part and there is this foreign object. There’s something that was colored in a little bit differently than the surrounding material. And we’d ask what would that indicate? Because it definitely wasn’t a void. It wasn’t lighter. And they had mentioned that it could be a foreign object that had got introduced during the process. And we do a lot of CNC machining in our shop and it’s not very well contained. So we suspect that maybe a small chip or a aluminum chip got into our part. So that was interesting to be able to play detective there and see what had gone on. So yeah, really interesting.

Megan Bergsma:
And from that experience, do you think you can go back to what you manufactured the… Let me get this great, your honeycomb sandwich panel structure. Do you want to… After that experience, being able to go back and reevaluate that material into making it like better for your guys’ standards?

Keegan Karl:
Yeah. So like I mentioned earlier, one of the big disadvantages with composites is that, it can get expensive and it can get challenging to go through the validation process. One thing you don’t want to do is build up a big composite structure and then destroy it, because it can be very costly. So it’s nice to have that type of tool in place to do more of a non-destructive type of test to understand if you’re, for example, getting good bonds or if your honeycomb has some sort of rippling going on, or if you have voids in your material. So it’s a way to visually inspect it below the surface without destroying it, to understand if there’s something wrong with your part. So that’s where I see the value of it coming into place for composites manufacturing, is that non-destructive element to it. Anytime you don’t have to destroy your composite part is a good day.

Bill Cardoso:
Exactly.

Megan Bergsma:
For sure, that’s like your labor. All right Bill, what do you have up your sleeve?

Bill Cardoso:
Again, changing subjects a little bit asking for a friend. When are you guys shipping product?

Keegan Karl:
So right now the team and I are working through the main gear of the aircraft. So it’s a tricycle configuration. So we have one wheel in front and then two in back. We’ve got everything done. We’re working our way back through the aircraft, starting from the front, working back. So we have the nose gear all wrapped up. And now we’re working on the main gear and the main gear supports roughly 80% of the load of the aircraft. So it’s a really important structure to get right. So we’re taking our time with it. Once we get that wrapped up, we’re going to go right into engine startup and taxi testing.

Keegan Karl:
And then get into flight testing, hopefully shortly after that pending on major issues. And then springtime next year, if everything goes well and there’s no major anomalies or surprises that come out of flight testing, we would go pretty much right into production for the aircraft. In parallel to doing the R&D in developing the prototype, we’ve been building up all the production tooling for it. So hopefully springtime next year, pending on big road blocks for us.

Bill Cardoso:
So do you have to build a kit and fly it before you can sell it?

Keegan Karl:
So for us, we have to build up at least one aircraft and prove that it is capable of doing what we market it as doing. And then after that we’d be going into building the kits themselves. So we wouldn’t actually be building the entire aircraft, we’d be building up the parts and then shipping them. There’s this thing that builders can request it’s called build assist, where they work with a third party program where they go to a shop and they assist them. So they have a workspace and they have tables and they have space to… And tooling to help them accelerate that build process. So that’s something that we might explore with a third party to improve that build experience even more.

Bill Cardoso:
Fascinating.

Keegan Karl:
So if you’re someone who’s like, I really like your plane and I really want to fly it, but I don’t necessarily want to take on the risk or the uncertainty of building an entire aircraft. I can work with this third party of individuals to help me get it across the finish line.

Bill Cardoso:
Very cool. Very, very interesting. And what do you need to do to certify the plane to fly in California or somewhere else. I’m familiar with registering cars. How does it work for airplanes? Is it pretty much the same?

Keegan Karl:
Yeah. So it’s kind of similar. The car analogy is really good, because I think people are pretty familiar with that, but you have to have a pilot’s license, like you’d have to have a driver’s license. So you need a private pilot license. And you can get that independently of owning the aircraft. You don’t need to get it with the aircraft in hand, you can get that flying in the flight school. Once you have that, it’s like having your driver’s license, you can go out and fly different aircraft if you want. For the aircraft itself, after you’d have it built, you’ll have to prove to the FAA that you actually built at least 51% of it. So you’d show them your build log and the process that you went through. So it’s just a matter of taking notes and a photo log really of your build process.

Keegan Karl:
And then the aircraft itself would have to be registered as an amateur experimental built aircraft. And then there’s different phases that you go through with it. You do some initial flight testing with it and there’s… Some of the regulations are changing a little bit around this, but there’s this 40-hour flight minimum that you have to do. And they’ll give you a flight radius to fly in to validate that the aircraft is air worthy. And then after that, you let loose. You can fly your aircraft for recreation and educational purposes and fly it where you want to fly.

Bill Cardoso:
Very cool.

Megan Bergsma:
I actually have a question from our guests that are coming up.

Keegan Karl:
Sure.

Megan Bergsma:
Yeah. So this is Omar, he’s probably asking for his friend, because he’s friend is a pilot, a helicopter pilot. Will there be any available assistance from a support team during the building process? And do you foresee a lot of customers needing help during the building process?

Keegan Karl:
Yeah, so typically how this works is there’s a… What’s called a builder community. Our first 10 reservation holders if you will, are people that we’re really going to become the foundation of that builders group, that will help answer questions and assist other builders in their process. We’ll have a forum, if you will, like a Facebook forum or a DarkAero forum. Where you go and you’re like, “Hey, I’m on chapter two. And I don’t quite understand this, but can anyone help me clarify? Do I use an AN5 or an AN4,” that type of stuff.

Keegan Karl:
So definitely going to be able to have to build up a support network after people start building the aircraft. But it becomes a little bit of a community, if you will, of builders that want to help one another, or at least that’s our vision for it. And then beyond that, I was mentioning earlier, the build assist, where you have a third party that helps walk you through the build process, if you get hung up and gives you facility and tools and resources to complete your build if you’re intimidated or you don’t have the space to do it.

Bill Cardoso:
Yeah, this community is very powerful. Again going back to the car kit analogy, those builder forums are everything. Because there’s just so much you can document in a manual, right. And there are a lot of details that you only learn after you build a car or an airplane. That’s huge.

Keegan Karl:
And the way that we intend to structure the build process, is that you start out very easy with it. You’re not going to jump right into bonding up a couple things on the wing or the primary structures, you’re going to start small. And then you’re going to work your way up to the larger systems as you gain more confidence. So it’s something that you can get your feet wet in and not feel over intimidated by.

Keegan Karl:
And then as you move along, it’s a lot of repetitive tasks like, okay, I know how to bond now, I know how to do some simple cutting with carbon fiber, I think I got the hang of this. But then if there’s areas that are unclear or you just don’t feel quite right about, you can always reach out to the builder community to ping off of, or us at DarkAero if you get hung up, we’ll obviously be there to support you as well.

Megan Bergsma:
This actually gives a good segue to my next question. The next project for DarkAero aside from building your kit is educational videos, right. You’re launching that on YouTube. You want to tell us a little more about that?

Keegan Karl:
We’ve been building up… We have over a hundred videos now on our YouTube channel. And it was more just a way to keep our parents in the loop on where we’re at with this crazy project that we ventured out on.

Keegan Karl:
And then to give an insight to where we’re at with the build process and then help educate people on some of the stuff that we do behind the scenes in the shop and how the kits coming together and help people kind of gain more confidence as we’re going along and developing this thing. So it’s been a fun learning experience for us as well, developing that aspect of the business and sharing that part of our story or our journey, if you will, get into where we’re at today.

Keegan Karl:
And then on top of that, we recently launched a aerospace composites course. We did a lot of composite questions. Composites can be a small community of people. And there’s the camp of people who are very educated, PhD types, that know a lot of the theory. And then there’s the camp of people that are the techs, that work in the shop, day in and day out with composites. We feel like we create a bridge between the two, where we have a lot of good theoretical knowledge, but we also have a lot of good hands on knowledge and are combining that into a composites course, if you will. And that’s been pretty popular for people as well. It’s been fun sharing that with different folks. So looking forward to seeing how that evolves as well.

Bill Cardoso:
So that course is a hands-on class you teach in Wisconsin. Is that how it works?

Keegan Karl:
Yeah, that’s correct. It’s a two day course with a combination of lecture and demos, for people to get their hands wet. So it’s been a great experience for some of our deposit holders who want to gain more confidence in their build that they want to do, building the DarkAero. And then also for hobbyists and B2B people who are exploring composites as a alternative to metal for their product or their projects that they want to do. So it’s a good intro course to getting your hands wet with composites and carbon fiber specifically.

Megan Bergsma:
Well I think this will launch into Bill going from his car… Being a car enthusiast to a aircraft kit enthusiast, who knows.

Bill Cardoso:
Well, you’re always looking for something that goes faster, Megan.

Keegan Karl:
If you’ve done-

Megan Bergsma:
Oh yeah, for sure. Instead of like… So you’re… A little segue here, Keegan. His old Ford model T unfortunately got burnt from something in electrical. And then his next project is the Phoenix. So maybe we can actually make his next project, the Phoenix fly. Literally.

Bill Cardoso:
Exactly.

Keegan Karl:
Yeah, that sounds great.

Bill Cardoso:
Well this-

Keegan Karl:
Was your kit build… I’m curious if your car kit build… Was that a composite shell with a metal framework?

Bill Cardoso:
Yeah, so it’s a fiber glass body with steel chassis and frames.

Keegan Karl:
Okay.

Bill Cardoso:
Yeah. And-

Keegan Karl:
Nice. So you’re familiar with composites then?

Bill Cardoso:
Yeah. They look like this.

Keegan Karl:
Nice.

Bill Cardoso:
So I think this idea of giving back to the community with this composite class is just genius. I think it’s a great way to engage a wider audience and share some of these amazing experiences that you guys have in all the learning with composites. This is huge.

Keegan Karl:
Yeah. And I think the big thing we’ve learned from the whole process, is that people just want to understand more about what’s going on. And it’s just fun to know how you got from point A to point B. And in the process of doing that, I think it helps instill a lot of trust that you’re following this regimented process to getting to where you want to go because aircraft, I understand can be… It’s scary. You’re lifting your feet off the ground and getting up into the air. How do you know it’s safe? So providing that insight and how we’re going about doing that to ensure that it’s safe, is a good way to build that trust with community, I think.

Bill Cardoso:
Absolutely. Yeah. That is just awesome.

Megan Bergsma:
Well, thank you so much Keegan for joining us and giving us a little bit more insight into DarkAero and all of the things aerospace.

Keegan Karl:
Of course. Thank you guys for having me, it was a lot of fun.

Bill Cardoso:
Thanks so much man, appreciate it.

Megan Bergsma:
Hopefully we get to see it in person.

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