How far away is practical electric flight?

[Reproduced from publication Resilient Aviation with permission]

On a recent Town Hall webinar run by Revolution.Aero, the topic of alternative-powered aircraft was covered from a number of different angles.  Here are three of them

The analyst monitoring the industry

Charles Armitage, an equity analyst with Citi Research, had the advantage of an observer’s view as the other speakers were all getting their hands dirty on projects – whether that be electric engines, hydrogen power, battery technology or aircraft.

Armitage sees electric power having a “reasonable chance” in the aviation world.  With an initial focus on urban air mobility projects and a flight range of 5-30 miles (eg downtown to airport links) to prove the technology.

Looking at power sources, Armitage considers hybrid-electric as a short term solution, filling the gap while electric power systems and infrastructure develops – whether that is a battery-electric or fuel-cell electric (eg with hydrogen).  Battery technology is a clear focus – watch for energy density figures (measured in wh/kg – watt hours per kg) in the range 500-750, the sweet spot to beat traditional fossil fuels.  As a comparison in the automotive world, today’s Tesla Model 3 battery is around 250 wh/kg.

The electric motor company

MagniX first made mainstream news in December 2019 when Canadian operator Harbour Air first flew a six-passenger de Havilland Beaver floatplane powered by one of their 750hp magni500 engines.  In May 2020, this was followed by the first flight of a similarly retrofitted Cessna 208B Grand Caravan in partnership with Seattle-based AeroTEC.  Separately, MagniX are also working with eViation on their Alice Aero all new aircraft, which targets a cruise speed of 240 knots, and a range of 540nm (+reserve) for 9 passengers and 2 crew.

CEO Roei Ganzarski estimates these three aircraft will be certified for passenger operations within three years, with the Beaver first in 2022 and the other two in 2023.  He added that the FAA and EASA are very actively working on rule changes for electric power and that he has “never seen the FAA more eager to learn”.  The challenge is more around which technologies the regulators should spend their time on, as there are so many different approaches to clean flying being proposed.

The Regional Airliner

Wright Electric CEO Jeff Engler leads a company focusing on the propulsion/airframe integration, and expects deliveries of practical electric-powered 150-200 passenger airliners in 10-15 years.  Under the corny name of “Wright 1”, the renderings of the aircraft on their website are in the colours of easyJet.

Engler agrees with Armitage’s figures for batteries with a minimum 500 wh/kg, while acknowledging there is a market gap due to so few people working on battery technology.  His ideal is 10 times the number of engineers working in this field to bring practical solutions sooner – perhaps a new direction for aviation engineers in pandemic times?  Wright Electric is setting its sights on an airliners with two-hour range, swappable battery packs and an engine development program which sees ground running in 2021 and flight testing in 2023.

Jeremy Parkin, for Resilient Aviation

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