Improvements in motors and battery technology have companies around the globe racing to build short- and medium-haul planes that are cheaper to operate than standard aircraft and produce little or no carbon emissions.
A rendering of the Eviation Alice electric aircraft frame, which was unveiled at the Paris Air Show in June. (Photo courtesy of Eviation)
A rendering of the Eviation Alice electric aircraft frame, which was unveiled at the Paris Air Show in June. (Photo courtesy of Eviation)
Early in May, at Camarillo Airport about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles, California-based startup Ampaire took to the skies with a six-seat, twin-engine Cessna 337 aircraft. This, however, was no typical Cessna. Ampaire had retrofitted the plane to create a hybrid aircraft featuring an electric motor and an internal combustion engine working in concert.
Ampaire proclaimed: “This is a significant step for aviation, because never before has a hybrid-electric aircraft this large flown. Ampaire’s [Cessna] 337 is built with a direct path toward commercialization — moving electric aviation firmly from futuristic to attainable.”
The message was boastful, but many agree with its broader point: Electric- and hybrid-electric-powered aircraft might seem futuristic, but that future is coming soon, at least to short-haul flying.
“I see this as an unstoppable trend,” Olaf Otto, head of e-aircraft operations for the Germany-based electrification giant Siemens, said in a recent interview.
Otto predicted that electric commuter aircraft of up to 19 seats will be operating commercially within a decade, likely a couple of years sooner than that.
“There are a lot of companies that are pushing very hard for this,” Otto said. “There are a lot of countries that are pushing very hard for this.”
Otto estimated that aircraft makers will begin announcing development plans for regional electric aircraft, which typically carry between 30 and 90 passengers, sometime in the next decade, as well. The first ones will be built, Otto predicted, between 2030 and 2040.
Reduced noise, the expectation of cost savings and the reduction or elimination of emissions are all reasons for the robust interest in the development of electric and hybrid-electric aircraft.
For example, Seattle-based startup Zunum Aero, which is developing a 12-seat hybrid-electric aircraft, estimates that the plane will produce 80% less emissions and noise compared with similar-size aircraft propelled by jet fuel. All-electric aircraft would produce zero emissions.
In a similar vein, Seattle-based Magnix, a startup electric-motor maker, estimates its power plant will operate at up to 80% lower cost per flight hour compared with jet fuel-propelled aircraft.
Electric aircraft proponents say that cost reductions like that would have the potential to transform short-haul flying by opening point-to-point routes between small and midsize markets that aren’t financially viable today.
Cost efficiency could also help alleviate or resolve ongoing pilot shortages around the world by sharply lowering the expense of pilot training. In fact, Denver-based startup Bye Aerospace is currently working through FAA certification on its two-seat, electric-powered eFlyer, which is purpose-built for the flight-training market.
“The cost is so reduced that we say it is like bringing democracy to flight training,” CEO George Bye said.
‘It’s like bringing democracy to flight training.’
The transformative potential of electric aircraft has attracted a host of companies around the world. According to Don Hillebrand, director of energy systems at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, hundreds of companies are currently experimenting in the space, both for private aviation and for the commercial market.
“It’s like the wild west,” Hillebrand said.
Magnix in November will begin testing its all-electric motor in partnership with Harbour Air, a British Columbia seaplane operator. For the test, Harbour Air will retro-fit one of its existing six-passenger de Havilland Beaver seaplanes with a Magnix 750-horsepower electric motor.
Magnix CEO Roei Ganzarski said the company is targeting 2021 for certification, which would mean Harbour could be selling commercial electric seaplane flights by 2022.
At present, the Magnix motor can take a 20-seat aircraft 100 miles on a single battery charge, Ganzarski said, making it an option for most of Harbour’s Vancouver-based network. But Ganzarski predicted that technological improvements and certification from international aviation safety authorities will mean that within six years “a significant amount” of flights of 1,000 miles or less will be under electric power.
Another small North American airline, Hawaii’s Mokulele, will further the development of Ampaire’s hybrid-electric propulsion system beginning in September. The companies are planning approximately 400 hours of test flying over six months between the Maui airports of Kahului and Hana.
Rob McKinney, president of Pacific operations for Mokulele parent Southern Airways, said he expects the airline to be the eventual launch partner for the Ampaire technology, but he also said the launch is likely several years away.
Magnix partner Eviation, another startup, unveiled its purpose-built electric aircraft frame in June at the Paris Air Show. The Israeli company said that the nine-seat craft’s all-composite structure draws from innovations in the fields of airframe design, battery integration, vehicle autonomy and more.
Combined with the latest Magnix motor and today’s batteries, it will be able to travel 650 miles at 240 knots (roughly 275 mph), Eviation said.
Startups and small airlines are joined in electric aircraft development by some of the biggest names in the airline, aerospace and electronics industries.
Siemens has been researching and developing electric aircraft propulsion for a decade, Otto said. Its motors are powering the Bye eFlyer. The company has also done electric-propulsion work in partnership with Airbus and the aircraft engine maker Rolls-Royce. In fact, in June Rolls-Royce entered into an agreement to acquire Siemens’ eAircraft division. The acquisition is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Already, Siemens’ electric motors have advanced far enough that the company plans to have a 2-megawatt version operating in test facilities this year. Four motors of that size are enough to power small, mainline jets seating approximately 150 people, Otto said. Meanwhile, under an initiative that predated the acquisition announcement, Rolls-Royce is vying to fly the fastest electric craft in history, reaching speeds of 300 mph or more, next year.
Boeing and aircraft engine maker Pratt & Whitney are also working toward electric aircraft development as are JetBlue and discount British carrier EasyJet. One collaboration, for example, combines the innovation arms of Boeing and JetBlue with Zunum Aero, which expects its hybrid-electric aircraft to have an initial range of 700 miles.
EasyJet, meanwhile, announced a partnership last fall with Los Angeles-based startup aircraft developer Wright Electric, which plans to test a nine-seat electric aircraft this fall. EasyJet said its larger goal is to use electric aircraft with as many as 220 seats for flights of up to 335 miles, a distance that encompasses 20% of seats flown by the carrier today, covering city pairs such London-Amsterdam, London-Paris and London-Belfast, to name a few.
Wright Electric has set a goal of producing an electric passenger jet by 2030.
“These are ambitious targets,” EasyJet director of transformation Gary Smith said in an email. “But in any development program it is important to set targets to work toward.”
Another early and important backer of electric aircraft is Norway, where the state-owned airport operator Avinor has pledged to have all domestic short-haul flights use electric propulsion by 2040. Also in that region, Scandinavian airline SAS recently entered into a partnership with Airbus to study what an airline’s business model for electric aircraft would look like. Lars Andersen Resare, the carrier’s head of environment and corporate responsibility, said that among the issues SAS will address is how the introduction of electric aircraft will impact issues such as maintenance operations, turnaround time, network planning and the needs of the airport and airfield itself.
Areas of study will include the impact electric- and jet fuel-powered planes would have on airlines’ fleet management, what impact the need to recharge batteries could have on turnaround times and the challenges for airports in adapting to a need for far more electric power capacity.
'Testing ‘will show where some of the problem areas are.’
“This will show where some of the problem areas are from a business model standpoint,” Resare said. “And also the opportunities.”
Betting on improved batteries
Despite the bullishness over electric flight, skeptics remain.
“It is going to take a lot of money, a lot of time, and I don’t think you are going to get into larger-size aircraft in the next 10 years, if ever,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft industry analyst with Fairfax, Va.,-based Teal Group. “For tiny numbers of people over small numbers of miles, it might be doable.”
Aboulafia said a primary barrier to the development of electric aircraft is battery technology. Ganzarski estimated that for Magnix’s 750-horsepower motors to propel a 20-passenger, twin-motor aircraft for 100 miles, two tons (4,000 pounds) of batteries would be needed. The Eviation Alice is to have a maximum takeoff weight of approximately 14,000 pounds. The battery weighs 7,000 pounds.
“It’s a huge battery with some aircraft built around it, if you will,” Eviation CEO Omer Bar-Yohay told CNBC in February.
Argonne’s Hillebrand said that batteries have improved at a steady rate of 3% to 5% annually over the past two decades, and he expects that pace to continue. A major breakthrough, such as the development of a new battery chemistry, could result in a much faster leap.
But much progress will need to be made.
The weight of batteries is why electric aircraft development is focused on short-haul flying. Hillebrand said he is skeptical that batteries will ever be able to fuel long-haul flights, though he noted that developers are looking at various innovative weight-saving solutions, including ejecting spent batteries immediately after takeoff, which is the most energy-intensive portion of a flight.
In the meantime, efforts to develop other components of electric aircraft technology continue.
Ganzarski said Magnix has solved two problems typically associated with electric engines. First, the company has incorporated low-weight materials to improve the vital power-to-weight metric. Second, it has addressed the tendency of electric motors to run hot by integrating a closed-loop liquid cooling system into the motor.
Proponents of electric aircraft expect its development to be especially transformative for regional aviation. Recent industry trends have caused a reduction in regional service as airlines have moved to larger aircraft in an effort to increase profitability. According to the Regional Airline Association, the total number of 36-to-50-seat aircraft in U.S. regional airline fleets declined by half between 2008 and 2017, while those carriers more than doubled their inventories of 65-to-90-seat jets.
According to an overview by industry analyst Seth Kaplan of data from the analytics company Diio Mi, the number of domestic city pairs serviced daily by U.S. carriers dropped 11.4% between 2007 and 2017.
Siemens’ Otto is among those who express the belief that electric and hybrid-electric aircraft, with their potential to offer greatly improved operating economy, will reverse that trend.
“Why don’t we have the aircraft that take you to the small regional airports?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, it’s not economically viable today. There is a likelihood that we are going to shift away from the big planes, and we’re going to see more small planes taking a smaller number of people to more locations.”
Backing that notion is Zunum Aero, which stressed while unveiling its hybrid-electric aircraft plan in 2017 that its goal is to disrupt short-haul air travel in the U.S. by flying out of small, little-used airports.
Along with improved flight economics, Zunum expects its hybrid-electric aircraft to require 40% less runway than today’s regional aircraft. That, coupled with noise reductions, could open the plane up to 5,000 underutilized U.S. airports, the company estimates.
Magnix’s Ganzarski said that electric aircraft operators will be further incentivized to fly between small markets by the growing expectation among today’s consumers for on-demand services. He envisions new service in small communities like the Washington state towns of Moses Lake, Ellensburg and Pullman.
“When you have electric engines that are able to operate at up to 80% less cost per flight hour, that changes the paradigm,” Ganzarski said.
Those same improved flight economics are what drive George Bye’s belief that his eFlyer will be able to transform the flight-training industry. According to the aviation research and consulting company Conklin & de Decker, the average per-hour cost of operating traditional flight-training aircraft such as the Cessna 172 or the Piper Warrior is $107. Bye estimates that his two-seat eFlyer will have an average per-hour operating cost of $23.
Bye acknowledges that flight schools would likely hold on to some of those savings to boost profit margins. Still, the training price reductions that electric aircraft have the potential to produce could be critical. In the U.S., pilots must accrue 1,500 hours of flight time in order to obtain certification to fly for a commercial carrier. Overall, the cost of schooling and training can often approach $200,000.
Meanwhile, Boeing projects a worldwide need for 635,000 new commercial pilots over the next 20 years.
The two-seat Bye eFlyer is able to fly approximately three hours on a charge with a maximum speed of 138 knots (about 160 mph), Bye said, which is somewhat faster than the Piper Warrior.
“A flight school operating our eFlyers would be disruptive to the entire market,” said Bye, who expects to both begin production and win FAA certification within two years.
It appears that some flight schools are inclined to agree. As of late May, Bye Aerospace had lined up approximately 200 orders for its training aircraft, including orders from two flight-training schools that operate out of the company’s base at Centennial Airport near Denver. In May, Bye secured a 60 aircraft order from Norwegian flight school OSM Aviation Academy.
In a press release announcing the purchase, OSM stressed the environmental benefits of electric aircraft rather than the cost benefits.
“We’re proud to take the lead in the future of green aviation,” said company CEO Espen Hoiby.