Technology

Electric aircraft to arrive ahead of schedule

 By Mike Scott

This time last year, the idea of an electric plane was widely considered to be pie in the sky…

Now, in a demonstration of how far and how quickly battery technology and our expectations of it have advanced, the skies are thick with prototypes and plans for aircraft that are fully or partially powered by batteries.
Fully-electric aircraft are still some way off, but not in some dim and distant future – companies have put a firm time frame on their ambition to be flying commercial battery-powered flights. Easyjet is backing Californian company Wright Electric and hopes to be making short-haul all-electric flights between London and Amsterdam within a decade.

Hybrid solutions

There are also a number of hybrid schemes in the works, and these are more developed. Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Siemens recently announced plans to develop the E-Fan X, a hybrid-electric plane that seats 50 to 100 passengers, with a prototype ready to fly as soon as 2020.
Initially, the trio will replace one of the four engines on a BAe 146 flying testbed with an electric motor, to “explore the challenges of high-power propulsion systems, such as thermal effects, electric thrust management, altitude and dynamic effects on electric systems and electromagnetic compatibility issues,” said Airbus.

E-Fan X electric aircraft
The E-Fan X electric aircraft (siemens.com)

Using battery-powered engines, particularly during take-off, could dramatically reduce both emissions and noise, helping to solve two of aviation’s key environmental issues. The sector is under increasing pressure to cut its emissions after the success of the renewable energy industry in bringing down its costs, and because of its massive predicted growth rate, which could see it producing the lion’s share of global emissions if it does not become cleaner.
Meanwhile, Seattle-based start-up Zunum Aero, backed by Boeing and Jetblue, is working on a small 12-seater hybrid-electric airplane that will be able to fly up to 700 miles, which it expects to have on the market by 2022.
The plane is designed to be able to become fully electric as battery technology improves by removing the fuel tank and replacing it with additional batteries.

Passengers

Airbus is also working on the Vahana, an unmanned electric aircraft that can carry passengers or cargo, and CityAirbus–also unmanned but able to take off and land vertically and also to carry up to four passengers, making it better suited for use in cities and other urban areas.

Project Vahana electric aircraft
Project Vahana intends to open up urban airways by developing the first certified electric, self-piloted vertical take-off and landing passenger aircraft (airbus-sv.com)

There are other projects out there, too, although most are more like electric flying taxis than commercial aircraft, with companies such as Alpha Electro, China’s RX1E-A and Nasa’s Maxwell project. However, Israeli start-up Eviation is targeting an all-electric six- to nine-passenger plane with a range of up to 600 miles.
The physics of flight and the limitations of today’s batteries mean that no-one currently envisages battery-powered long-haul flights, but in the long term Airbus wants to develop an all-electric long-haul aircraft. Only time will tell how these innovations will change the way we fly.

READ MORE: The growth of green aviation by RP Siegel

about the author
Mike Scott
Journalist. Environment, Sustainability, Climate Change, Investing, Energy, Supply Chain, Transport, Circular Economy, Stranded Assets, ESG, Smart Cities, Wealth Management, Family Offices, Asset Management, EU.