Electric Aircraft: The Beginning of a New Generation
During the past few decades different aircraft companies have been exploring electric aeroplanes, as air travel and cargo accounts for an increasing amount of greenhouse gases. Flying has been described as " the most carbon intensive activity an individual can make." Nowadays the roar of a jet, the vibration when you are on board, the burning of fuel on taxiways, not to mention the amount of air pollution we experience at the moment, are part of our "aviation life". But all these could be avoided with Electric Aircraft.
Different projects have been initiated during the last few years to reach emission-free objectives:
NEBO Air, is a start-up micro-airline completely electric, founded in 1989 by the Slovenian manufacturer, Sergey Grachev. Based in the UK, it had the world’s first fully certified electric aircraft: a two-seater Pipistrel Velis Electro. The founder plans to use it for public demonstration flights, pilot training and later as a way of transporting individual passengers.
It is the first Velis Electro in the UK, built by the Slovenian light Aircraft manufacturer Pipistrel that is now making about five Velis Electros per month and 39 have already been sent to customers worldwide, mainly to flight training schools or private pilots. Hundreds of pilots and groups of mechanics have been trained and soon the Danish military will start using the aircraft.
Spirit of Innovation is another electric plane project, it is the name of an all-electric airplane made by Rolls Royce that completed a 15 minute flight, marking the beginning of an intensive flight-testing phase to analyse the aircraft’s electrical power and propulsion system. Rolls-Royce said the one-seat aeroplane has the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft. The company is also creating an air taxi with manufacturer Tecnam, with the intention of delivering an all-electric passenger aircraft for the commuter market.
Volotea, Air Nostrum and Dante Aeronautical decided to create a 100% electric aircraft project too. Their aircraft will play a crucial role in establishing zero-emission regional air transport, enabling connections to be made between small population centres, thanks to its reduced operating costs compared to much larger aircraft. They expect this initial prototype to be certified for flight in three years time, representing a major milestone for the aviation industry. The collaboration involves the two major aircraft operators, Dante Aeronautical and CIDETEC. The project is a clear example of commitment to technological innovation and sustainability.
Eleven years ago, Airbus made its first steps on its electrification journey, developing the world’s first all-electric, four-engine aerobatic aircraft, CriCri. In 2015 their twin-propeller aircraft E-Fan successfully crossed the English Channel. Airbus's electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) demonstrator projects, Vahan and CityAirbus, have completed many hours of flight testing programmes to ensure safety and high performance. The E-Fan X, the successor to E-Fan, is 30-times more powerful than its predecessor, and has provided insights on serial hybrid-electric propulsion. Airbus has also declared plans for zero-emission aviation with a new generation of the battery-electric CityAirbus, first announced at the beginning of 2019 when Audi and Airbus presented the aircraft developed as part of the Urban Air Mobility project in Germany. The plane was equipped with eight electrically powered propellers. The CityAirbus NextGen aircraft will be able to carry four passengers around 80 kilometres and at speeds of up to 120 km/h. The first flight of the prototype is planned for 2023, with certification around 2025. Airbus calls the battery-electric aircraft a “flying taxi” capable of silently flying over urban spaces.
Boeing's partnership with NASA, does not lag behind, creating nine years ago the SUGAR project: Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research (SUGAR) has brought promising developments for the future of aviation too as NASA proposed on subsonic aviation concepts and technologies that could help meet these goals in the 2030-2040 timeframe: reduction of noise standards, reduction on the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection Sixth Meeting and reduction in fuel burn.Recently, Boeing was awarded a new contract to continue studying the SUGAR Volt and a NASA hybrid electric concept called the STARC-ABL (single-aisle turbo-electric aircraft with an aft boundary layer propulsor).
Harbour Air, since December 2019, seaplane airline based in Vancouver, has been carrying out regular test flights with a de Havilland Beaver retrofitted with an electric motor. It hopes a new battery system will allow it to gain certification and start commercial flights by next year, carrying four passengers on up to 30-minute trips. In the meantime, Israel-based Eviation’s new Alice aircraft, is due to have its first flight this year and has been designed to carry nine passengers for 800km.
Overall, we can definitely see the Aircraft companies are working hard to find the best, quickest, efficient, cheap and safer way to travel emission-free but a lot of research and work still needs to be done to reach the BIG change allowing them to transport hundreds of people on a commercial electric flights. The perfect batteries, for these big aircrafts, seems to be a difficult step for now, as currently they miss the energy density to allow them long flights or carrying large numbers of passengers. But hopefully all these electric airplane projects will stand up even more firmly as it will be a potential solution even for many small airfields in Europe that are under threat of being sold and built on, but with the quietness of electric flying might provide a lifeline — removing the noise objections that have often restricted their operations.