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San Antonio's Knight Aerospace sells flying mobile biocontainment emergency room to Canada

A picture of the façade of Knight Aerospace's headquarters. Knight is spelled in big black letters, with Aerospace written smaller in blue underneath. To the left of the words is Knight Aerospace's logo, a half blue, half black shield with two white sash-looking stripes coming across it from the bottom left to the top right.
Josh Peck
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Texas Public Radio
Knight Aerospace's headquarters at Port San Antonio.

Knight Aerospace, a San Antonio company that manufactures specialized modules and pallets for cargo planes, has finalized the sale of a second mobile biocontainment emergency room to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

The Aeromedical Bio-Containment System (ABES) contains an entry room, a decontamination room and a space that can hold more than a dozen patients at once.

The first ABES module Knight Aerospace sold to the RCAF was 40 feet long and locked into place in the cargo hold of a C-130. The second unit will be delivered by the end of this year, according to Michael Knight, senior vice president of international sales, and includes several upgrades.

Bianca Rhodes, Knight Aerospace’s CEO, said the idea for a biocontainment emergency module came towards the end of the major Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2016.

“People like the CDC said we will probably have a pandemic at some point, it’s a question of when and, you know, how widespread it will be and how contained,” Rhodes said. “We think we got lucky with Ebola, but we probably won’t get as lucky the next time.”

Knight described how the RCAF has used the first ABES module.

A 40-foot wooden model of the first ABES module Knight Aerospace sold sitting in Knight Aerospace's manufacturing warehouse. It is painted white and includes doors. Behind the model there is manufacturing equipment and chairs covered in blue tarp on pallets.
Josh Peck
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Texas Public Radio
The 40-foot-long model of Knight Aerospace's first ABES module.

“Their very first mission was retrieving a Canadian — an Air Force individual and his family — out of Africa,” Knight said. “The mission then called for moving private citizens and other military personnel domestically in Canada to hospitals that could treat them because the hospitals they were at either didn’t have the capability or they were overcrowded.”

In order to build modules for the C-130 and C-17, Knight Aerospace has to work with those aircrafts’ manufacturers, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to ensure the modules are safe for flight.

“What we have done before is we have worked with them so that they could provide the certification for our modules,” Knight said. “We’ve worked in close contact with Lockheed. We’ve also worked with Boeing on a module that we developed for the C-17.”

Knight said the company has the ability to customize the units for each individual order because they manufacture in-house with 30 full-time manufacturing employees at their 160,000 square foot property at Port San Antonio.

“Since we design and manufacture everything in-house from the ground up, we have that flexibility for future customers, for the next customers, to put multiple units, depending on the size, into the various aircraft out there,” Knight said.

Jim Perschbach, president and CEO of Port San Antonio, expressed how excited his team was about the recent ABES sale.

“We think the Knight sale to Canada is absolutely fantastic,” Perschbach said. “We’re really really excited about this as a lifesaving technology. More to the point, we’re really excited about how it shows how you can use aviation and aerospace to advance health care around the world.”

Port San Antonio owns 1,900 acres of land that used to belong to the Kelly Air Force Base in southwest San Antonio. Perschbach’s team leases land to manufacturers like Knight Aerospace and Boeing as well as cybersecurity operations like the 16th Air Force, the Air Force’s cybersecurity and cyber warfare unit.

Perschbach said Port San Antonio has a lot to offer companies who call it home.

“Well, there are two things that make Port San Antonio a really special spot for industries like this,” Perschbach said. “The first one is we’ve got the ability to build the types of facilities that you require — we’ve got airfield access, we’ve got people who’ve got collectively thousands of years within the aviation industry in one place.”

He also said the port enables rich cross-industry collaboration for those working in aviation, energy, manufacturing and robotics.

Knight said being at Port San Antonio has been great for the business.

“Tech Port San Antonio has been fantastic supporting us in our expansion, leading us and providing us abilities to add new employees, providing marketing abilities for us, so it’s definitely been a blessing that we’ve been able to relocate our facility to Tech Port San Antonio,” Knight said.

The manufacturing warehouse at Knight Aerospace. Metal tables and concrete pillars are scattered across the concrete floor and in the center is the second ABES module under construction, currently just a steel frame with wiring.
Josh Peck
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Texas Public Radio
The second ABES module, center left, being built in Knight Aerospace's manufacturing warehouse.

As Knight walked through his company’s manufacturing warehouse, he explained some of the features of RCAF’s second ABES module.

“So in this area, they can put upwards of four single patient beds or they can put individual seats — they can have 16 passengers,” Knight said. “We’ve implemented an air conditioning system that provides air circulation, still keeping the negative pressure that the module contains, but bringing in cool air to basically cool down the module if it’s in a particular hot area of the world.”

Rhodes views the RCAF’s second order as validation of the product’s capabilities.

“The way we read that is it’s a real vote of confidence in how the technology has been received," Rhodes said. “You have an asset like the medical module that gets used for them to say, ‘wow, this is working better than expectations.’ ”

Knight Aerospace’s other cargo plane modules include a combination galley-lavatory system and VIP modules for heads of state to travel more comfortably while flying in cargo planes.

“Knight Aerospace for the first 25 years built VIP modules,” Rhodes said. “Like every few years they would build one for a head of state.”

These VIP modules were sold to clients such as the nation of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula and a classified customer in the United States.

Knight Aerospace has also conducted business with dozens of other nations, including Iraq, Egypt and Taiwan.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Technology and Entrepreneurship News Fund including The 80/20 Foundation, Digital Defense, Rackspace, The Elmendorf Family Fund, UTSA Center for Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship, SecureLogix, USAA and Giles Design Bureau.

Josh Peck is the Technology & Entrepreneurship Reporter for Texas Public Radio.