Electric aircraft are an inevitable step for commercial aviation with the heightened focus on carbon emissions. Numerous companies are vying to develop this new technology, but the engines are still in the works and a lengthy certification runway ahead. Here is everything you need to know about electric aircraft and what aviation companies are doing about them.
By the most optimistic measure, the first electric aircraft could be certified to carry passengers in just two years’ time, or by 2023. This is the goal of MagniX, which is developing a battery-powered electric propulsion system that could be retrofitted onto existing propeller planes. Harbour Air in Canada is already testing the system on one of its de Havilland Beaver seaplanes. MagniX’s also produces the engine for Eviation’s Alice.
But that is one of the more optimistic timelines. For example, Tecnam’s hydrocarbon-powered P2012 Traveller — the basis for its all-electric plane — took three years from first flight in 2016 to FAA certification in 2019. Most think certification and introduction of the first electric engines for aircraft is unlikely before the middle of the decade. And for larger electric aircraft, like the thousands of Airbus A320s and 737s that ply the skies daily? Decades.
These examples show the potential of battery-operated aircraft, but fuelling commercial aircraft through battery technology alone is still some way off. In the short-term, electric propulsion is likely to be restricted to so-called ‘air taxi’ operations, which are expected to start service in a small number of cities from around 2023-2025. These will provide two- to four-person commuter flights to avoid ground traffic congestion.
Many of the biggest players in aviation, like JetBlue and EasyJet, are looking at new electric or hybrid-electric aircraft that could take years to develop, and depend on advances in technology to make it viable on a big scale. EasyJet has said it hopes to carry paying customers by 2027 through its partnership with U.S. company Wright Electric. It’ll take that long because battery technology isn’t yet developed enough for EasyJet to fly 180 passengers on routes of up to 300 miles. In the short term, Wright Electric has said it plans to test its technology on nine-seat airplanes.
The scale at Harbour Air is a lot smaller. Its flights are short, and none of its existing airplanes carry more than only 18 passengers, so the chasm between today’s technology and what the airline needs to fly passengers is much smaller.
So how are batteries doing these days? According to Sripad and Viswanathan’s analysis, current lithium-ion batteries are capable of powering one flying taxi already. Archer Aviation’s Maker aircraft can cruise at 150 mph with a 60-mile range.
The duo also identified prototype battery designs developed recently or in-use for select high-performance applications that are suitable for Kitty Hawk’s plane, the Heaviside, which can travel at 180 mph with a 100-mile range. Advanced designs not yet commercially available will open the door to more electric flying taxis with greater speeds and longer ranges.
Batteries now starting production do deliver a useable range, if not quite what the companies are hoping. They will be aiming to get a foot in the door and to upgrade to better batteries as they become available. There are engineering hurdles to overcome, including minimizing weight and ensuring the reliability of the battery cooling system.
There are political hurdles to overcome in certification. Existing modern aircraft are extremely safe, with only one fatal crash per ten million flights. Any battery issues during test flights will make regulators extremely wary. In addition, developers will also be asking for flexibility on fuel reserve requirements.
Half of all global flights are shorter than 500 miles. That’s the sweet spot for electric aircraft. Fewer moving parts, less maintenance, and cheap(er) electricity means costs may fall by more than half to about $150 per hour. For airlines, this makes entirely new routes now covered by car and train possible (and profitable) thanks to lower fuel, maintenance, and labor costs. Electric propulsion solves another problem for aviation: carbon emissions.
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