A San Luis Obispo County aerospace engineering firm will be building NASA's first manned X-plane in 30 years.
Empirical Systems Aerospace, known as ESAero, recently signed an $8 million contract with NASA to build the experimental aircraft, now called SCEPTOR, which will be used to demonstrate new electric propulsion technologies and aerodynamic concepts.
"The multi-year program is by far the largest in the company's history and further secures our footing on the Central Coast," said Benjamin Schiltgen, vice president of finance and one of ESAero's founders.
NASA has been working more with small businesses, and ESAero, which is the prime contractor on the project, views itself as "paving the way for a new era in demonstrators," Schiltgen said.
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"As we complete this program, we're going to have a model for how government and small businesses can work together."
While the contract was signed weeks ago, the company, based at the Oceano County Airport with another office in San Luis Obispo, has been engaged in an ongoing process for many months to build the demonstrator and make modifications to it, Schiltgen said.
Test flights are ongoing at Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. The project could take three to four years to complete, and the finished aircraft should be flying by 2017.
The company started in the garage of a rental home in Arroyo Grande at a time when its three founders — Schiltgen, Andrew Gibson and Trevor Foster — were fresh out of Cal Poly.
The company got its first break in 2006 building display models for NASA. More contracts followed in subsequent years from NASA and the Air Force Research Lab, allowing the company to grow and expand its facilities and equipment.
ESAero fluctuates between 15 and 20 employees, depending on the season, but it's looking to hire full-time electrical and mechanical engineers, given the increased workload.
In addition to the X-plane, the company is working on about a dozen projects, including component research, airline design and tool development.
The company, which has generated about $4 million in annual revenue over the past five years and is profitable, expects to permanently stay in Oceano, although Schiltgen anticipates a need for new hangars in the near future.
"We’re way outgrowing what we have there, but we want to stay there and improve that facility," he said.