US-based Aviation Battery Systems offers a different kind of ground power solution for aircraft: its innovative, portable, battery-powered StartStick ground power unit. Director, global business Paul Ross tells all about it
Tell us about the origins of Aviation Battery Systems
Aviation Battery Systems (ABS) was established in 2013, with its first StartStick units delivered in 2014. Todd Petersen and Scott Urschel, both of whom have pilot and engineering backgrounds, founded the company; they knew each other from aviation and racing work.
After getting stranded with a dead helicopter battery in Mexico during a Baja race, they agreed there was a need for a ground power solution to address remote operations for aircraft.
So, StartStick was born. It was released first into the helicopter market, with many Airbus, Bell and MD model helicopter owners deploying it initially in individual and fleet operations.
It is now in use on a very wide variety of rotorcraft and fixed-wing aircraft around the world, including Airbus single- and twin-engine helicopters, Bell single- and twin-engine helicopters, Leonardo helicopters, Robinsons and many others. Fixed-wing applications include King Air, Pilatus series, Cirrus prop and jet models, Cessna piston, turboprop and jet models, Air Tractor aerial applicator platforms and a growing number of regional airline commuter prop and jet models.
We have many clients across the UK and Europe who are using the StartStick with positive results, and we appreciate the opportunity to work with both the aircraft original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and our valued end-users – pilots, mechanics and fixed-base operators (FBOs) – globally, to help them streamline their operations via this portable ground power unit (GPU) option.
ABS is headquartered in Fountain Hills, suburban Phoenix, Arizona, and all our manufacturing is carried out in the US in Arizona. My own global business office is located outside St Louis, Missouri, another very strong aerospace industry town.
How did the StartStick come about, and how has it evolved?
We launched the company with the StartStick 10 and the StartStick 15 – of 10 and 15 pounds respectively – to cover a wide range of medium twin and light rotorcraft.
Awareness grew rapidly amongst mixed rotor/fixed-wing fleet operators that the StartStick was able to cover the needs of their light/medium fixed-wing craft. Public safety and airborne law enforcement operators were some of our first clients to see the benefit, such as Maricopa County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit in Arizona, which used the StartStick on rotorcraft but quickly realised the StartStick was also ideal for prisoner return flights into remote Mexico airports operated by their Cessna aircraft fleet.
And now you offer three models – the 10, 15 and 20 – for fixed-wing aircraft as well as helicopters?
Yes, all three models serve aircraft with 28V electrical systems, and we cover a very wide range of aircraft – the fixed-wing side is now seeing the benefits of this compact GPU, with many operators of business jets, turboprops and piston aircraft moving to the StartStick.
The particularly nice aspect of the design is that the StartStick delivers power exactly as required by the aircraft’s electrical system, so there is benefit for mixed fleet operators with heavy and light aircraft. This downward compatibility means operators can utilise the 15 or 20Ah StartStick on – for example – their fixed-wing medical aircraft, and then walk across the ramp to serve their rotorcraft start needs.
This same capability can benefit an FBO site, given the wide range of aircraft covered by the StartStick 20.
Many not familiar with the StartStick are pleasantly surprised with the very substantial amount of power we’ve integrated into this compact device: it offers big power in a compact GPU, is portable and has a long service life of between four and 10 years.
Frankly, the fixed-wing sector has traditionally felt very tied to fixed base support for engine starts/ground power unit support, and not been as autonomous as may have been liked. We believe that the StartStick option is a major improvement from traditional wheeled, heavy, non-portable GPUs.
So the market for StartStick includes emergency services, FBOs, business jets and even general aviation?
Yes, all of the above, and I would also add that the military, air medical fixed-wing community and the remote/short field community in cargo and passenger operations might benefit to deploy StartStick more widely.
We have a variety of military clients utilising the StartStick on turboprop variants for remote/short field ops and mission continuity.
So yes, we have a wide range of mission profiles and operations that can benefit – one term we use is ‘ramp or remote’ to describe broadly the product’s applicability.
What is the largest fixed-wing aircraft for which StartStick is typically used?
We have owners of a wide variety of platforms regularly using the StartStick, aircraft including King Air, PC-12, Dash 8 and Caravan turboprops as well as Citation series, Vision Jets, PC-24, Gulfstream series and others.
Plus, the StartStick readily meets the power requirements of multi-engine aircraft auxiliary power units (APUs) to support remote or ramp operations.
Something we learnt from client reporting is the benefit of using the StartStick for the first starts of the day. This standard practice has been extending the life of the aircraft main battery sometimes by up to a few years, and certainly results in cost savings.
Owners undertaking frequent unimproved airfield operations who in the past did not have a GPU available particularly benefit from StartStick. And in remote cold weather operations, an operator can easily take the StartStick with them into their hotel room, hangar or home and have a warm and readily portable GPU for a morning cold weather start of the aircraft.
What would be the particular selling points of the StartStick, would you say?
We are proud to provide one of the most advanced portable GUs ever introduced in aviation. Specific benefits include:
Being one of the most compact, portable and lightweight GPUs on the market, of just 10/15/20 pounds in weight
Offering a very substantial store of power allowing several starts before recharging, or a combination of database/avionics updates plus engine starts
StartStick can be recharged during flight via onboard 28BV charging cable, or plugged into the onboard inverter. A standard wall adapter plugs into a hangar socket
Being applicable across a very wide range of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft
Each unit’s display provides constant on-condition data including state of charge and other key information
StartStick’s proprietary design protects aircraft electrical systems by not allowing deficient voltage levels from the GPU, while allowing a range of operations including avionics service, compressor wash, engine starts and more
StartStick meets rigorous G-shock and destructive testing thanks to its engineered fibre-reinforced polymer case that is water, chemical and impact resistant for years of field operations
Are all your StartStick models Li-ion powered and are there any similar battery-powered, portable GPUs like yours available in the market?
Yes, the units utilise proven lithium nanophosphate power cells, integrated into a fully contained, proven power unit.
There are not many high-power, compact GPUs like ours that we’re aware of for fixed-wing operations.
Do you expect to see increasing demand for battery-powered GPUs in the future?
We believe there are many operators working in a very wide range of tasks who can benefit – from Papua New Guinea to Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, from Scotland to Sweden and from Australia to Argentina, fixed-wing operators and FBOs alike can improve efficiency and reliability by deploying the StartStick in their daily operations.
We believe we can particularly help improve the efficiency of daily operations of the FBO community. Think about it: an FBO’s ramp service team can simply jog out to their business jet client with StartStick in hand for a start sequence, rather than the slow roll of the aircraft tug for start. And certainly cargo operators or airlines’ ramp teams could deploy StartStick to augment a car-sized, diesel GPU in many instances.
Has the pandemic sped up this trend, would you say?
With the cutting-edge technology and design of the StartStick, we’ve continued to see growth through the pandemic. It seems as if more and more aircraft owners moved their work remotely and looked for remote GPU options, and they looked to StartStick for more autonomous operations.
Has the pandemic affected the nature of demand for GPUs generally, do you think, or perhaps what is required in terms of after-sales service?
It seems that one consequence of the pandemic’s economic impact has been that an aviation product’s operating cost is now in laser focus [with purchasers]. And, since 2014, our focus has been on a long-life, highly durable ground power unit. Moreover, each unit is fully refurbishable, typically for a maximum of US$1,500.
We believe strongly that the long service life is a key benefit, and that clients do not have to spend much time managing their StartStick – many lower tech portable GPUs of the past have required frequent overhaul and battery replacement.
Do you have any plans for further StartStick improvements that you can share?
Our latest addition, the StartStick 20, was released to the market just six months ago, in mid-2022, and is seeing rapid growth in utilisation amongst the fixed-wing community. As an engineering and technology-driven company, we’re fortunate to have resources to work on constant product enhancements to better serve the aviation industry. Stay tuned!