While electric cars are part of mainstream transportation, air travel has remained almost unchanged since its conception. However, electric aircraft are set to revolutionize the way we travel. As climate change becomes an ever more important subject for governments worldwide to address, aviation is looking for ways to reduce its impact. As well as cutting reliance on fossil fuels and CO2 emissions, the electric aviation industry is worth an estimated $178bn. The majority of electric aircraft companies are new startups, but as big players like Boeing move into the space, we can expect R&D costs to surge, bringing electric flight to the masses sooner than you might think.
Electrifying Aviation – the race to recharge
Since the beginning of humans’ quest to fly there have been experiments with electric-powered flight. As far back as the 1880s tests were being carried out using batteries and an 8-horsepower electric motor on a hydrogen-filled dirigible. The airship, you might know them as a blimp or a zeppelin, was able to return to its launch site after its flight – something that had never been achieved before. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that people started notably experimenting with the technology again. In 1973 Heino Brditschka, an Austrian aircraft manufacturer, flew around 300 meters on a modified glider in Linz. The timing is slightly disputed from between nine to fourteen minutes long. In 1998 as part of a classified government program to develop a high-altitude aircraft for surveillance purposes, NASA flew its electric aircraft ‘Pathfinder’ to a record 80,201 feet over Hawaii.
The Constraints of Electric Aviation
It seems that electric cars have become part of the mainstream relatively quickly. It’s now common to see (maybe not always hear) Prius, Lexus and other electric vehicles on the roads in Europe and the USA. Some may ask “Why has it taken so long to make an electric plane?” There are various reasons that affect the development of an electric powered aircraft:
It seems obvious, but the size and weight of an aircraft in comparison to a car is stumbling block for those developing electric aircraft. The plane does not only simply travel in a linear direction, but also take-off and landing, which requires more energy. The number of batteries required to generate energy also creates a challenge for engineers, as their combined weight will greatly reduce the aircrafts efficiency and reduce the number of passengers/luggage it can carry. The typical design of an aircraft is made to accommodate the fuel reserves, so the wing design and weight distribution will also need to redesigned for an electric aircraft.
Jet fuel for General Aviation contains around 14 times more energy than the most advanced lithium-ion battery in use today. In order to generate the same amount of energy for similar distances, an excessive amount of batteries are required. e-VTOL batteries must be able to discharge at rates roughly 10 times faster than the batteries in electric road vehicles. Cooling the internal of the aircraft as well as the batteries requires more energy. A fuel reserve is also required, in case of emergencies.
What is a hybrid electric aircraft?
Hybrid-electric aircraft are powered by gas turbine engines which drive electrical generators to power electric motor driven fans. Thrust can be provided by a mixture of gas turbines and electrical propulsors. Due to the storage issues of fuel cells and batteries, it would be impossible to power a commercial jet. Until battery technology advances, hybrid planes can help bridge the gap between jet engines and fully electric flight.
The Future of Electric Aviation
You might have heard of eVTOL – electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing that is paving the way for Urban Air Mobility (UAM). With the expansion of cities, mega-cities and urban sprawl around the world, the need for fast, convenient and environmentally friendly travel has increased. UAM would allow travelers to make short haul regional trips with environmental advantages. As well as reducing air pollution, noise pollution will also be reduced, allowing electric flights to continue through the night and early mornings – unlike current commercial flights.
Leading the way is Uber Air, the ridesharing giant, looking to dominate the per-seat charter market of the skies. They are enlisting the help of multiple startups around the world to innovate electric powered aircraft or ‘air taxis’. Currently they have six partnerships, including Embraer and Boeing, who are trialing a variety of designs and engines.
According to Embraer, around 300,000,000 people travel more than 45 minutes within an urban area, so the widescale use of air mobility would help to drastically reduce congestion. Their concept, which the public can submit a name for, has eight lifting props, a short wing and a single pusher propeller. Jaunt Air Mobility, the most recent partnership announced by Uber Air, appears more like a helicopter than plane. The hybrid uses the main rotor for take-off and landing (much quieter than a traditional helicopter) and the propellers then take over while cruising.
Another company aiming to bring electric aviation to the masses is Wright Electric, the brainchild of Jeff Engler, CEO. In April 2018 Jetex and Wright Electric announced a partnership to help bring electric aircraft to the general aviation market. The plan is to bring Jetex’s global support to the aircraft for short haul flights.
To start, Jetex will implement the charging infrastructure and full support for electric aircraft, expanding throughout our global FBO network. We will also invest in production of the first electric aircraft globally. What does a flight in a Wright Electric powered aircraft look like? With an estimated range of 540km or 335 miles, a passenger can fly from Dubai to Muscat or Malaga to Casablanca on one single charge.
Electric Aviation in Commercial Flight
Electric flight is not just for General Aviation. Commercial airlines are also putting their names and budget behind advancing the technology required to bring electric planes to mass tourist travel. EasyJet, the British low-cost airline, is one of the most notable companies to put its name behind developing electric aviation. In partnership with Wright Electric they aim to develop a fleet of electric planes to cover short-haul routes by 2030. Those routes, or ‘flyways’ could cover up to 500km – that’s from London to Amsterdam. This could see the carrier becoming the first electric airline in the world.
In Norway, where the countries expansive fjords and rough terrain make air travel more efficient than road, the government is making an impressive pledge. It announced that by 2040 all its domestic flights will be electrically powered. In a country where the shortest internal flight is 12 minutes – the same journey taking several hours by car, the initiative could revolutionize everyday flights.
The advancement of urban air mobility will also demand new infrastructure in cities. Uber Air recently announced a partnership with Signature Flight Services to develop a ‘Skyport’ infrastructure. The first location will be in California in association with real estate developer Related Companies.
Infrastructure for Electric Flight
As well as terminals for take-off and landing there will be new pressures for traffic management. Companies including Embraer have suggested plans for an ‘urban air traffic management’ (UATM) system to allow the air taxi concept to thrive. This would include flight and route planning, traffic management and weather monitoring. This would also require a high authority to preside over the flights and close routes when needed.
It’s an exciting time for the industry that transports millions of passengers daily. We’re looking forward to see what’s next for hybrid planes, eVTOL and personal electric aircraft.