This engineer lived in an RV in Tesla's parking lot — now he's on a quest to build electric planes

Ex-Tesla battery engineer wants to reinvent aviation
Ex-Tesla battery engineer wants to reinvent aviation

Impossible Aerospace founder and CEO Spencer Gore hopes to make self-flying electric planes that would make jet fuel — and the pollution from burning it — obsolete.

But he's starting small by building battery-powered electric drones.

The company's flagship product, dubbed the US-1, can fly for about two hours on a single charge, about as long as a helicopter can fly on a full tank. Gore describes the small unmanned aerial vehicle half-jokingly as "a battery with propellers attached."

More than half of the mass of the US-1 is made of battery cells and the entire structure serves as one big battery pack. 

Impossible Aerospace US-1 drone
Andrew Evers

Impossible Aerospace shares DNA, and a clean energy mission, with Tesla.

Before he caught the start-up bug, Gore worked as an intern at two Elon Musk-led companies, SpaceX and Tesla. He was offered an internship at the electric vehicle maker in 2014, and and later became a full-time battery engineer there. He accepted the internship even though he was still working on an engineering degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Rather than dropping out of college like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, Gore decided to lead a double life. He convinced his professors he would be able to mail in his assignments, and travel back and forth between Tesla's headquarters in Palo Alto, California and their campus for exams.

To save money and eliminate commute time, Gore even lived in an RV in the parking lot at Tesla for six months while finishing up his degree. He has no regrets.

"Honestly that was that was one of the happiest times of my life," he recalls. "If you think about the two things that stress people out in Silicon Valley the most it's commuting and paying rent. If you if you don't have to do those two things, life is pretty good."

Spencer Gore's RV

Gore says he learned some important lessons about shipping new products and keeping teams focused through major challenges during his tenure at Tesla. In the years that he worked there, Tesla was perfecting the design and manufacturing processes for battery modules that power its Model S, Model X and Model 3 electric cars.

Both Tesla and Impossible Aerospace created their vehicles thinking about battery needs first. Other companies tend to start by designing their vehicles first, and battery later. That can lead to cars or aircraft that aren't as efficient and don't perform as well, Gore said.

Replacing helicopters for some first responders

Drones have become a valuable tool during emergencies, because they can be launched within minutes to give first responders situational awareness, fight fires from above or help search and rescue operations. They're even beginning to replace helicopters in some cases.

Impossible Aerospace research found that there are around 18,000 municipal police departments across the US, and around 32,000 fire departments, but only sixty municipalities have access to a helicopter. That's partly because a police-grade helicopter can cost millions of dollars. "A drone can provide about half of the utility of a helicopter at less than 1 percent of the price," Gore says. "It can even be more useful than a helicopter, because a drone can fly lower and get in closer to evaluate dangerous situations."

The start-up is flying its US-1 drones on behalf of first responders in Santa Clara County, near its headquarters, to demonstrate the drones' potential and teach officers how to fly them.

Impossible Aerospace US-1
Impossible Aerospace

Because Impossible offers free help to police and fire departments near its office, Gore and employees at his company sometimes answer calls to bring a drone out to a fire or crime scene in the middle of the night.

Impossible Aerospace has raised more than $11 million from venture investors including Bessemer Venture Partners, Airbus Ventures and Eclipse Ventures, where ex-Tesla executive Greg Reichow is a Partner. While Reichow sits on the board at Impossible Aerospace today, the two hadn't worked together directly at Tesla.

Several other companies are working on electric and hybrid-electric planes, including Pipistrel, Joby Aviation, Eviation, XTI Aircraft and others.

Gore said he'd be happy to see them all succeed, though he favors a pure-electric approach:

"These drones are direct predecessors to the aircraft that I think we'll be flying on in the future. The real question is is not when will we have electric airplanes, but when we have electric airplanes that fly far enough to start replacing conventionally fueled air transport. We're not going to stop until until it's possible to travel anywhere in the world emissions free. It has to be done."