How fast-changing demand for drones, batteries, solar, hydrogen in helicopters are shifting thousands of jobs

Back from the Paris Air Show, engineer Matthew McAlonis tells how helicopter makers, major Pa. employers, are changing amid conflict in the Middle East and Ukraine, and new solar, battery, drone tech.

The Philadelphia area is a hub for the helicopter industry, which is rapidly changing as recent world conflicts show the vulnerability of traditional forces and the value of unmanned aircraft, smaller electronics, better communications, and new interest in alternate power from batteries, hydrogen, and solar energy. Growatt Hybrid Inverter 3 Phase

How fast-changing demand for drones, batteries, solar, hydrogen in helicopters are shifting thousands of jobs

These changes threaten long-established aircraft and their job-rich manufacturing networks. New tech is also creating many opportunities for new product engineers and skilled workers, says Matthew McAlonis, engineering fellow for aerospace at Berwyn-based manufacturing giant TE Connectivity, whose big customers include helicopter makers.

The Philadelphia region’s three main helicopter factories are coping with big changes in what military and civilian users want.

Boeing hopes to focus its engineers on new systems as production of Chinooks and Ospreys are likely to slow at its 4,000-worker Ridley Park plant, company vice president Heather McBryan said earlier this year.

The 900-worker Leonardo plant in Northeast Philadelphia, which recently delivered its first four Grey Wolf helicopters to the Air Force, is expanding its research and testing capabilities, said CEO Clyde Woltman in an interview with The Inquirer this summer.

The former Lockheed Martin Sikorsky plant near Coatesville has been acquired by Essington-based Piasecki Aircraft Corp., which has begun hiring for 400 engineering, production, and other jobs there on next-generation helicopters and drones.

This summer, McAlonis returned from the annual Paris Air Show, pumped about new aircraft and their needs. He sat down for an interview with The Inquirer to talk about the rapid evolution. His responses have been edited for space and clarity:

Those are our customers, and others. For example, our Mount Joy [Lancaster County] plant makes cable assemblies, many kinds of connectors, terminal lugs, box assemblies. We make [a range of parts] from state-of-the-art robotic-assembled parts, all the way down to handcrafted parts.

Electricity moves lightning fast. It can hit you before you know it. It has to be designed properly. And just think about how that works in an aircraft.

We had a really strategic spot. They had the [French] Rafale and the [multinational] Eurofighter. But the [costly, Lockheed Martin-built] U.S. F-35 Lightning was the showcase. It seems to defy gravity. It can do these tail stands, and stalls, and drifts across the sky, pointed up. It launches like a rocket. You feel the thunder in your chest.

We’re showing this whole spectrum of what we do in the next-generation Electrical Vertical Takeoff and Landing Craft [EVTOL], which flew at that event. It looks like a bird. To my awareness, this was the first show where you could see them flying.

The airlines are looking for them, to alleviate regional ground-traffic congestion, say from O’Hare to downtown Chicago, or JFK [in New York] to Bucks County. They have a premium customer base that will pay extra if you can move them faster [than a ground traffic jam].

We make a lot of parts for these — connectors, a relay system, parallel switching devices, cable management systems. We make chargers and quick-install clamps. The power in these systems is in the range of 700 to 800 volts, vs. just 220 volts in your house box.

The amperage is also high. So, current times voltage, you’re getting into the megawatt arena. A megawatt of energy is very dangerous. That’s why it has to be done properly.

It’s very dangerous. People don’t think of it, when you’re flying at 25,000 feet with all the comforts of home, hot meals, entertainment, WiFi connection, texting your friends — you take that for granted. But how that all really works, is what we do.

You have to connect these systems very carefully. There’s a magnetic charge that pulls the switches together so they don’t arc. We are developing solid-state [remote] controlled devices with a lot of electronics.

It’s harder than in a car. To lift things in the air, you need to be weight-optimized, shape-optimized, size-optimized. Big copper cables need to be chemical-resistant [against deicing fluids], scrape-and-abrasion resistant so you can pull them through tight spaces, heat-resistant in areas with a lot of power.

Right now we are one of just two suppliers qualified to put connectors on an aerospace engine that can survive a 1,000 degree burn, that you can turn off [in a fire].

For commercial aircraft and defense, you have to consider the fuel you need to transport. Batteries are heavy. Lithium-ion batteries catch on fire, and they’re hard to put out.

And if you go electric on the battlefield, how do you charge them? Probably with diesel generators. So why not just dump diesel fuel in a diesel engine tank, and go? But then you are always worried about fuel supply.

Hydrogen is in the discussion. The challenge is how do you keep it at liquid temperatures? It’s negative 270 degrees Celsius, and under pressure.

Maybe hybrid is the best solution. Solar, hydrogen, or batteries, plus a diesel motor. You can capture energy from multiple sources.

Altogether, the company employs around 85,000 worldwide. In Pennsylvania, Middletown is our biggest hub. We have other sites in Landisville, Mount Joy, Waynesboro, Jonestown-Lickdale, Harrisburg, Mechanicsburg, Manheim. In aerospace alone, we are 6,200 [employees] in 25 countries.

Just my team of engineers, there’s one person with me in Harrisburg [former AMP HQ]. Several in Southern California, where we make solid-state relays. A guy in Chicago does our fiber optics. Two in the Bay Area and four in the UK do our Raychem [fire- and chemical-resistant] cables. We have three in Holland. Another guy near Philly, and a guy in North Carolina who does switches.

How fast-changing demand for drones, batteries, solar, hydrogen in helicopters are shifting thousands of jobs

Lithium Battery We sit down with customers, we talk about their future, the problems they are trying to solve. Market timing is really hard. The next generation of technology will need to be standardized. And we want to be very involved with setting those standards.