Knight Aerospace CEO Bianca Rhodes stands inside one of the company’s biomedical containment modules at its headquarters Port San Antonio. William Luther, Staff
On a recent afternoon, Knight Aerospace CEO Bianca Rhodes stood inside a 40-foot-long container outfitted with medical equipment and designed to plug into Royal Canadian Air Force cargo planes, rapidly converting them into flying emergency rooms.
San Antonio-based Knight Aerospace’s turnkey container, known as the Aeromedical Bio-Containment Module, has brought the company international attention and lifted its industry profile.
And now it stands to reach for new heights — and speeds — under a recent federal government contract that could put its products on rockets and perhaps into space. The company, whose headquarters are at Port San Antonio on the Southwest Side, aims to design containers for the future that the Defense Department envisions using on rockets to deliver military and medical supplies anywhere in the world at unprecedented speeds.
“It’s a new way of transportation that needs to be figured out,” Rhodes said about using rockets to move cargo between points on Earth and beyond. “Our specialty is developing a good structure that’s air worthy, so it doesn’t matter what the structure is.”
Knight Aerospace was recently awarded $3.75 million in Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, contracts by the Air Force Research Laboratory to build “low-cost, intermodal cargo containers for point-to-point rocket transport” as part of an initiative called the INTermodel Rocket CONtainer, or INTRCON.
The new business venture comes as the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force, under the Rocket Cargo Vanguard program, seek private companies to help the Defense Department develop rocket systems that can deliver tons of cargo significantly faster than planes can. Initiated in mid-2021 with the Space Force as the lead service, the Rocket Cargo program is focused on determining the viability and utility of using large commercial rockets for Defense Department global logistics.
Last year, the Air Force Research Laboratory entered into a five-year, $102 million contract with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to research how reusable rocket systems can be used for cargo missions. SpaceX has been developing the nearly 400-foot-tall, reusable Starship rocket system at its launch site in Boca Chica, near Brownsville. The 160-foot-tall Starship spacecraft, which sits upon the Super Heavy booster, is designed to carry more than 100 tons of cargo to destinations like the moon, according to its website.
Knight Aerospace is working with “a rocket manufacturer” to design its future product, said Rhodes, who declined to say whether that company is working with SpaceX.
While Knight Aerospace’s SBIR contracts call for designing containers specifically for rockets to transport cargo on Earth, it’s open to the idea of joining the Defense Department and commercial rocket makers in carrying cargo and humans on future missions to the moon and Mars.
“Our focus is putting people and equipment on platforms that are unconventional — like the back of a cargo aircraft or a rocket ship — to get them there safely,” Rhodes said.
Opportunities in speed and space
Rhodes remembers Port San Antonio CEO Jim Perschbach asking her several years ago whether she had ever considered building cargo containers for space.
But the idea is clearly in the company’s mind today, starting with its INTRCON initiative. The concept involves improving on the practice of sending cargo aircraft across the world in response to humanitarian crises and disasters, which can take up to 17 hours to arrive, said Luke Perkins, director of engineering at Knight Aerospace.
“That’s fast if you’re transporting medical supplies, water, equipment and anything people might need in those types of crises,” he said. “But what if you could do if faster?”
As SpaceX was developing reusable rockets, Knight Aerospace saw a business opportunity, believing that its expertise in transporting people and precious cargo on airplanes could be applied to the military’s rocket program.
“People are looking at rockets right now for being able to go from point A on Earth to point B on Earth, and there’s a lot of hurdles to overcome,” Perkins said. “We were able to position ourselves as someone with 30 years of legacy experience in the cargo aircraft business, but we’re also innovative and ready to take the next step on what humanity is doing next.”
A market for medical modules
In 1992, the late Alfred Knight, an Air Force veteran who worked with military contractors, launched Knight Aerospace Products Inc. to build ground support equipment like cranes, scissor lifts and dollies for Lockheed Martin to use in C-130s and other military cargo aircraft.
In its early years, the company also built VIP modules for clients such as the nation of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula and heads of state.
More than two decades later, Rhodes — a native Texan and former chief financial officer at local companies such as TexCom Management Services, Intelogic Trace and Kinetic Concepts Inc. — joined Knight Aerospace in 2014 to help develop a separate business named Knight Aerospace Medical Systems LLC.
Rhodes had visited with the federal agencies, including the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which convinced her there was a market for aviation medical modules.
“In case of a pandemic, it would be very difficult to transport a large number of patients efficiently,” she said, recalling conversations at the time regarding global Ebola outbreaks. “Also, the State Department was concerned about repatriating Americans if something were to happen to an embassy.”
Knight Aerospace CEO Bianca Rhodes motions toward a display showcasing some of the company’s products. William Luther, Staff
In 2017, the two companies were consolidated to form Knight Aerospace.
Rhodes bought the company’s legacy assets, became CEO and shifted the company’s focus from commercial and military aircraft interiors to medical modules, while continuing to produce aircraft seating, referred to as palletized products, meant for easy installation and use on various types of aircraft.
“Ever since, we’ve been focused on more products that more countries need — medical modules,” Rhodes said. “VIP modules are great, but there’s not that many sultans that need them.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Knight Aerospace sought input from the medical community and the CDC to develop and produce the Aeromedical Bio-Containment Module. To that end, in late 2020, Knight Aerospace named Dr. Jay Johannigman, a U.S. Army Reserves colonel and trauma surgeon at Brooke Army Medical Center, as its chief medical officer.
The company marketed its modules as a cheaper and more tech-savvy means of transporting COVID patients than medical helicopters or air ambulances. It said the modules enable patients and medical teams to remain separate from the aircrew, an important factor in reducing risk of exposure.
“It all changed with COVID,” Rhodes said. “Medical modules have found traction.”
Client, product diversification
In 2019, Knight Aerospace moved into an 80,000-square-foot space — which it expanded in 2022 to 160,000 square feet, with two high-bay warehouses and offices — at Port San Antonio, near customers such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing Co. and StandardAero. The company gained access to the Port’s industrial airport, where customers can pick up products at the runway.
The company announced in late 2021 that it was selected by the U.S. Air Force for an SBIR Phase 1 award to work with the Air Force and the Texas Military Department on research regarding additional tech capabilities for its medical modules.
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In 2021, it teamed with Collins Aerospace, a unit of Virginia-based Raytheon Technologies Corp., to develop a lavatory system for military cargo aircraft, completed its first module for the Royal Canadian Air Force and delivered a palletized seating system to the Brazilian Air Force to use in its KC-390 cargo plane and C-130 aircraft.
Last year, the company partnered with Rossell-Techsys, the aerospace and defense division of Rossell India Limited, to work on palletized products for cargo aircraft for users such as the Indian Air Force.
This past September, the company delivered its second medical module to the Royal Canadian Air Force — an indication that it would continue to streamline what has become its most valuable product to date.
Rhodes describes Knight Aerospace as a major player in its cargo container industry, delivering products to clients in 36 countries. While the company does most of its business with Canada, it has customers in the Middle East, including Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The company also has clients in Malaysia and the Philippines.
But Rhodes believes the company needs to make the U.S. a bigger part of its clientele.
“That’s who owns most of the cargo aircraft in the world,” she said.
Knight Aerospace’s revenue grew 50 percent from 2020 to 2022 and by 100 percent in 2022, she said.
“This year will be a 300 percent growth,” said Rhodes, who declined to disclose specific financial figures.
Rhodes was similarly tight-lipped about the cost of the company’s medical modules. She said in 2020 that the units range from $3 million to $50 million, depending on the “ bells and whistles.”
With the new Air Force contracts, Knight Aerospace will need more employees and space. The company now occupies about a third of its building and has plans to expand soon. The company said the contracts run through 2025, but it’s keeping delivery deadlines under wraps.
Rhodes said the company now has 65 employees, up from 25 in 2021, to meet growing demand.
She stepped into one of the company’s high-ceiling, 80,000-square-foot bays, where several employees wearing hard hats walked among rows of palletized seats.
“These are pallets going to Kuwait Air Force in two weeks,” she said, pointing to the seats covered with protective cloth. “We got all kinds of different modular, enclosed or open systems that roll on and lock in to the aircraft.”
Making rocket containers
As Rhodes stood inside a medical module designed for aircraft, she talked about how containers for rockets will be about half the size — roughly 20 feet long — and designed to “lock into the rocket.”
“It will be a very ruggedized container,” she said.
The company plans to build the rocket containers using the same lightweight, aircraft-grade aluminum that goes into its containers for cargo planes, and it’s also looking to adapt the new containers to operate at significantly faster speeds in rockets.
“When something goes on an airplane, it has to be more robust than something that goes on the back of the truck because you’re going to see different temperatures and vibrations,” Perkins said. “Amp that up by 10 when you go on a rocket. There’s added temperatures, pressures and vibrations that you have to account for, and that takes a lot of engineering specialty to … design whatever goes on the rocket to survive it.”
As the commercial space race continues, Knight Aerospace believes it’s positioned itself to support global rocket transportation and eventually efforts to move cargo and humans in space.
“As fast as the big rocket manufacturers and the people who are flying these important missions have the appetite to transport humans, we’re ready,” Perkins said. “We’re looking for more opportunities to expand the boundaries. We think that our technology could support such missions as the moon or even Mars.”