Feature Illustration: Concept of a Paragon VTOL urban air taxi service. Courtesy: Paragon VTOL Aerospace.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Brownsville (Cameron County) — In the three months since Paragon VTOL Aerospace announced its move from California to Brownsville, the company has assembled a new management team, scouted sites at the local airport for the testing of vertical takeoff autonomous aircraft, begun talks with the community college on workforce training, and set course with plans to build a massive redundant microgrid energy network.
Paragon Chief Visionary Officer Dwight Thanos Smith has also cautioned that the company will probably be crashing a few aircraft along the way.
Helen Ramirez, executive director of the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation did happen to mention that one of the many qualities about Brownsville that attracted Paragon was the city’s meandering waterways known as resacas.
“They wanted to do the testing safely, either through greenfields or undeveloped land or waterways,” Ramirez said.
Paragon’s business model is to design a series of hybrid-electric vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) passenger aircraft, as well as the regional infrastructure necessary to make them a practical alternative to other modes of transportation.
This new transport ecosystem will require, not just the manufacturing of commercial VTOLs, but of vertiports where they can land, receive maintenance, and takeoff; a self-sufficient energy source to power the vehicles and the vertiport facilities; a trained workforce; and a new type of air control system.
Paragon claims to have nearly $1 billion in capital commitments to accomplish its goals and Smith announced at a Sept. 23 press conference in Brownsville that the company will have hired up to 50 people by year’s end.
The Sept. 23 conference at Brownsville South Padre International Airport was to announce the recruitment of two key members of the management team and to lay out in more detail what Paragon hopes to achieve in the coming years.
Ken Peterman is now the chief executive officer. Peterman comes with four decades of experience in defense contracting. He was founder and CEO of SpyGlass Group, a consulting organization that helped shape aerospace and defense trajectories in tactical communications, mobile networking, cybersecurity and satellites. He was also president of Viasat Government Systems, a market leader in high-speed satellite broadband services.
“What we’re talking about,” Peterman said of Paragon’s ambitions, “is advancing and realizing an urban air capability that’s never existed before. That’s not just small and heavy cargo drones. That’s not just passenger drones. That’s a software sophisticated highway system that controls and manages the flight so it’s done safely.”
Jeff Mobley, introduced as the new chief financial officer, was CFO of Gavilan Resources, a Blackstone sponsored private company focused on acquisition and development of oil and natural gas assets. Paragon is relying on his experience in banking and raising capital to sustain its operations.
All this research, development and manufacturing requires some heavyweight partners and Paragon has them in spades. The company is collaborating with Rolls Royce Solutions America Inc., S&C Electric Company, ARUP, Baker Electric, Texas Southmost College, the City of Brownsville and the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corp.
“We will be building multiple microgrids within the Brownsville community and the microgrid is the first step in a series of steps required to make this entire ecosystem viable,” Smith said.
“Without an infrastructure, it’s really a tough value proposition because you have to have a place to land. And it’s not just about having a helipad with markings on it–Land here and you’ll be fine–you have to have all the other support systems in place. We’ve got to figure out what that is. We have to find the failures and find them fast and then figure out how to build on that.”
Smith said the February freeze that shocked the state’s power grid was not a factor in the decision to have a self-sufficient power source. Prior to that event, Smith was already concerned about the increasing demands electric vehicles would put on already strained, centralized energy networks.
“Our microgrids are being built to power the vertiports and they can also power the facilities they are located on, the neighborhood, the town , the city, even the county. There will be multiple vertiports in Brownsville, not to say we’re impeding on the (Brownsville) Public Utility Board because that’s not what we do, but we’re designing them for our VTOLs for operation. But this will become, in my opinion, the model moving forward in multiple cities and states across the country and around the world.”
Peterman added that each microgrid power station built will be a multimillion dollar asset. “They’re cyber secure. It creates a distributed power grid that is more resilient than a centralized power grid and is more resilient to the kind of problem that we had in the winter.”
R&D on the VTOLs will start small, first with drones, then quarter-size passenger vehicles, then half-size vehicles. Ultimately, the plan is to be able to have a fleet of nine-passenger VTOLs with zero carbon and zero emission systems, and with a range of more than 550 miles.
One of the company’s short-term goals is to pioneer the urban air taxi movement in the Rio Grande Valley by providing 50 VTOLs in Brownsville, beginning in 2025.
All of this is dependent on a locally trained workforce. Texas Southmost College President Dr. Jesús Roberto Rodriguez said the faculty is developing a program on vertiport drone maintenance. Many other programs will be needed.
As the company grows and earns its wings, Smith said the workforce needed will number in the thousands. Occupations that will need filling include drone operators, pilots, air traffic managers, microgrid technicians, vertiport maintenance personnel, VTOL factory workers and mechanics, cleaning crews and more.