Electrically powered aviation is shaking up the aerospace industry. While the road transport industry has focused on the electric car (with varying amounts of success), attention has now turned to electrically powered aircraft. The driving force behind this development is the need to reduce global aviation’s level of greenhouse gas emissions.
However, satisfying consumer demand is certainly not the only benefit. As well as cleaner flights, electric aircraft could fill a gap in the market that exists right now, namely intercity commuter flights to alleviate the congestion on major road routes.
Not only does the aviation industry have to achieve this (and quickly) for current volumes of air traffic, but also for future growth. It’s going to be a lot easier to sell the idea of a new runway at Heathrow or an entirely new airport if you can assure people that at least some of the aircraft using it will be cleaner and quieter. The stark commercial reality is that passenger numbers could fall if the aviation industry doesn’t invest in the development of hybrid and all electric aircraft.
The Big Players
There are numerous businesses and key individuals who have put their might behind electric-powered aviation technology. The Israeli company Eviation brought their prototype all-electric passenger aircraft Alice to the Paris Airshow early in 2019. The aircraft is powered by three rear facing pusher engines, one on each wingtip and one on the tail.
The first version of this aircraft will be unpressurised and aimed at the air taxi market. It will have a crew of two and seating for 9 passengers. The second pressurised version with a more powerful battery is expected to be launched in 2023. The aircraft has already received orders from companies like Cape Air, who currently have 90 aircraft in their fleet.
While companies like Eviation are focused on building new electric aircraft from scratch, others are working toward converting an existing fleet to electric designs.
This is certainly true for Harbour Air who are working with magniX to convert their own fleet. These hybrid designs would mix conventional aero engines and electric power. They would achieve a reduction in CO2 emissions due to the electrical component being used at certain parts of the flight.
Other companies have joined forces to reach new goals with this technology.
For instance, Rolls-Royce, Siemens, and Airbus are working together to add an electric motor to a British Aerospace 146. The Airbus E-Fan X is quickly progressing through development with testing predicted to begin soon. While this is largely intended for the leisure market at first, the plan is to incorporate commuter aircraft over the next twenty years.
Boeing is working on similar technology with their SUGAR Volt concept. This works in the same way as a hybrid car, mixing electrical power and conventional fuel.
EasyJet announced their investment in electric powered aviation in 2017. Working with Wright Electric, they plan to build aircraft with a range of 335 miles which would be used on routes such as between London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Glasgow.
What about the range?
In the case of Eviation’s Alice the aircraft will be able to travel 650 miles at 10,000 feet. It will do so cruising at 260 knots on a signal charge. As you can see, electric aircraft still require a significant amount of development before they can match the range of aircraft with conventional engines. However, this is a significant improvement from the original electrical aircraft that were severely limited.
The Demand for Short Flights
It’s been estimated that globally, more than two billion air tickets are sold every year for flights that are less than 500 miles. That’s a sizeable market for smaller commuter aircraft and air taxis, and presumably that is the driving force behind the investment and development of this new generation of aircraft. As well as the return in the form of reduced CO2 emissions there are also lower operating costs than aircraft with conventional engines.
The Future Of Passenger Airliners.
Eviation’s Alice is expected to be operating commercially by 2022. Other aircraft may be airborne even faster, with the Airbus E-Fan X program expected to be up and running by 2021.
As for regional airliners, United Technologies is currently working on a hybrid-electric demonstrator that could pave the way forward by 2025. EasyJet’s European plans are going to take a little longer to come to fruition. Their aim is to get the aircraft up in the air and available for passengers within the next ten years.
It seems then that we are certainly on the threshold of a whole new world of air travel. What’s particularly exciting is that this won’t be confined to shorter journeys. We could be flying aboard hybrid or all electric aircraft within 10 years.
Electrically Powered Aviation: Larger & Further
Right now we’re not quite at the level where electric-powered aviation is suitable or even possible for long haul flights. However, the industry is growing rapidly and a paradigm shift in energy storage could make this a reality. This will be determined by whether engineers can create batteries that are smaller, lighter and able to hold even greater levels of power. However, companies certainly have a strong reason to put their full weight behind plans like this. Indeed, the electric aircraft market is predicted to soar and exceed $22 billion within the next fifteen years.