2021 Hyperspace Challenge Alum Knight Aerospace Talks Rocket Cargo Opportunities
Founded in 1992, Knight Aerospace has become one of the most reliable aerospace suppliers in the world. The company has a long-standing legacy as an industry leader for delivering mission-critical specialty air transportation that offers life-saving solutions in moments of crisis and urgency around the world.
In 2014, Bianca Rhodes became the company’s CEO and took the opportunity to revitalize the 30-year-old organization. Most recently, this has included positioning the company to expand into the growing space sector. And while Knight remains dedicated to its origins in containers and passenger-carrying modules for big cargo aircraft, the team is starting to make waves within the space community by expanding their efforts into exciting space-focused cargo applications.
Rhodes recruited Luke Perkins in 2021 as Knight’s Director of Engineering and Innovation. Shortly after joining the organization, Perkins submitted a proposal to participate in the Hyperspace Challenge. That year, the program had proposed a problem area titled “Rocket Cargo Technology for Agile Global Logistics.”
The company, well positioned with modular containerized solutions for aircrafts, was beginning to explore the development of low-cost, cargo containers for rocket transport. This application, they proposed, could hold the key to the future of transporting medical personnel and supplies for humanitarian and disaster relief around the world.
Following their participation in the Hyperspace Challenge, Knight secured several SBIR contracts to continue the work. In February 2023, Knight announced the latest of these awards.
Funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Knight’s most recent contract will further progress on the company’s INTermodal Rocket CONtainer (INTRCON). The funding supports explorations of the technology’s potential to enable new rapid logistics capabilities, including facilitating mission planning, agile global logistics, ground launch operations, and coordination with commercial airspace.
Hyperspace Challenge editors spoke with Luke Perkins about the company’s past, present, and future, including its designs on space, and the role Hyperspace Challenge has played in this trajectory.
Tell us a bit about your background and your role at Knight Aerospace.
I’m now the Director of Engineering and Innovation at Knight Aerospace. I’ve spent most of my career thus far in the medical device and product development sectors. In fact, after I earned a bachelors in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree at Texas A&M, I came back to my hometown of San Antonio and started working in product development for major medical technology companies including 3M and DePuy Synthes Companies of Johnson & Johnson.
My mom was a pediatrician and my dad was a mechanical engineer and business owner. That upbringing really inspired me to pursue a career at the intersection of medical technology and business. I always felt like these sectors aligned with my personal desire to have a real impact in people’s lives.
I met Bianca Rhodes in early 2021 through some of our mutual connections; she liked my background and thought I could be a good fit for the company. Bianca is really mission-oriented and she saw that Knight Aerospace was well positioned to capitalize on a history of innovation and medical industry focus by reaching into some untapped potential, including venturing into space applications. From day one at Knight, Bianca really gave the green light to innovate and to take what we’ve been doing and step it up a level in terms of brand new applications, brand new frontiers, brand new technologies. When the Hyperspace Challenge opportunity presented itself, it felt like a natural progression of this trajectory.
What was your experience participating in the 2021 Hyperspace Challenge?
We were extremely new to space when we first participated in the Hyperspace Challenge. We make containers and passenger-carrying modules for big cargo aircraft. We certainly have that figured out, and we thought there might be alignment with our experience and the growing desire to transport materials using rockets.
Applying to the Hyperspace Challenge is a bit of a funny story. My close friend, Sam Ximenes, who is the CEO of the San Antonio based company Astroport Space Technologies, sent me an email with the application. It was due the next day, so we had less than 24 hours to get the narrative lined up correctly. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, this is what I’m doing tonight!’ We may have applied at the last hour, but we were already well-suited for the proposal areas. And, the program turned out to be so worth it. It has been a whirlwind. Looking back I’m really grateful for the opportunity because one thing led to another and it was through the Hyperspace Challenge that we made some of our most critical contacts. It is probably the only way we’re sitting here looking at this many SBIR contracts right now; in fact, we now have over $3.75 million in SBIR contracts.
We applied to Hyperspace Challenge to tackle a problem area identified as “Rocket Cargo Technology for Agile Global Logistics.” We initially proposed sending medical personnel and supplies to the other side of the earth via rockets in order to deliver people and materials with extreme speed to locations facing critical missions. The idea was to use medical containerized systems as a kind of rocket ambulance.
The government innovators gave us a bit of a reality check in the initial conversations. Someday moving people and supplies will be possible, but they really pushed us to focus on shipping supplies first – mainly because there are complicated regulations on testing and development that go along with moving people.
What made the Hyperspace Challenge program structure valuable to you and your team?
One of the greatest values of the program was that we had ample time to engage with the government. When we got into the meetings with the government innovators, we ended up having a lot of questions about the mission and what the government was actually trying to accomplish as well as things like, whose rocket are we going to be on, and does anybody already have a rocket like this? The conversations got very practical very quickly.
Like I said, space was brand new for us, so everything they told us we took and worked into our processes. We have an extremely dynamic and adaptable team of engineers, so we integrated the Air Force Research Lab team’s feedback the best we could. We’ve continued to talk with many of the government contacts to this day.
What could transporting people and supplies look like in the future?
With the advent of technology like robotic surgery, teams could send modularized surgical suites with robotic surgeons inside. You’d essentially deliver robots across the world really quickly so you’d be getting surgical capabilities anywhere in the world in record time. Then, you could have the smartest surgeon in the world performing the surgery with the specialized equipment – it wouldn’t matter if he or she were in San Antonio, Texas, or Berlin, Germany. You’d potentially be sending top-tier medical care, MD Anderson Hospital staff for example, to Mumbai or other places.
What are the biggest impediments to this vision being a reality right now?
Right now, the biggest hurdles are public acceptance and cost. Robotic and remote surgery is still very niche and the public is only comfortable with a handful of procedures. So, there is a human factor that we need to address. Do we really want to do open heart surgery with the da Vinci robot? What if it slips? What if there is a lag in the connection? So there is an issue with just getting more comfortable with robotic surgery. Once that happens, things will start to open up. Also rockets are still really expensive. Obviously, this is starting to be addressed. Major companies are working to solve this but in a broad sense the cost of technology is coming down and that is going to change the industry going forward. So, it’s a mix of people getting comfortable with technology interacting with human bodies, and the cost of the technologies themselves.
What steps is Knight Aerospace taking to actively move towards this reality?
Knight Aerospace is a fairly small company, but I think we have a big part to play in this particular technology chain. We already design and develop highly specialized platforms for all kinds of precious cargo – be it people or high-dollar equipment – we make sure that it gets there safely. We have a known and tested platform that enables teams to transport surgery suites inside an aircraft. Aircraft qualification is a scary thing for most companies, but not Knight. We have that one figured out. So, now we’re figuring out how to do these same ideas but in rocket-qualified containers.
What message would you give to peers or strategic partners who might be considering participating in the Hyperspace Challenge program?
The program is worth it for the connections and the exposure. There are so many opportunities for networking. But there is also the point that people all over the world end up watching your pitch and presentation videos and learning about your company. So, the program really helps put you on the map for space. So, for any small company looking to get into space, I think it’s a no-brainer.