‘e-Flight’ - The Next Big Thing in Aviation?

Electrically powered aircraft are no longer a vision of the future, even if they still suffer today from the low energy density of batteries. But suppliers and aircraft manufacturers have great confidence that electric flight can make a significant contribution to the decarbonisation of aviation and are investing heavily in e-flight projects.

Guest Posts  |  Volker K. Thomalla  | 
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Volker K. Thomalla
Volker K. Thomalla

‘e-Flight’ - The Next Big Thing in Aviation?

Is electric flight really the ‘next big thing’ in general aviation? In the effort to make aviation more sustainable, e-flight does have great potential in the medium term, but in the short term, electrically powered aircraft can only play to their strengths in the areas of practical flight training or sightseeing flights.

Reliable Drives, Shame About the Batteries...

The drives themselves do not pose a major challenge: electric motors are robust, do not need a lot of maintenance, and are proven and cheap to operate. But the batteries they need to store energy have another major disadvantage: their energy density is far below that of fossil fuels. This means that the range of fully electric aircraft is still very limited. Although many battery manufacturers and research institutions are working on a significant improvement in energy density — especially for use in electric cars — it will be some time before these advances can also be found in a flying and certified aircraft.

At AERO 2022 (27-30 April) in Friedrichshafen, Germany, visitors can see for themselves that aviation and sustainability are not opposites. On the contrary, ecology and economy go hand in hand. AERO has been supporting efforts to increase sustainability for more than ten years now, among other things with the e-Flight Expo as an integral part of the trade show. This year, trade-fair visitors will easily recognise manufacturers and projects that are particularly committed to sustainability with the help of the Sustainable Aviation Trail at AERO: green balloons will float visibly above the stands of manufacturers participating in the Sustainable Aviation Trail, highlighting these exhibitors and their innovations in particular.

Rolls-Royce Innovation

Rolls-Royce not only manufactures electric motors for aviation, but it is also actively developing new energy storage systems. To this end, the company is investing around 90 million euros over the next ten years. The energy storage solutions developed by Rolls-Royce are intended to power all-electric and hybrid-electric eVTOLs and fixed-wing aircraft with up to 19 seats. By 2035, Rolls-Royce plans to integrate more than five million battery cells per year into modular systems. These modules will deliver market-leading energy densities, according to the manufacturer.

Rolls-Royce is one of the leading manufacturers of electric propulsion solutions for aviation, working on both pure electric propulsion and hybrid electric propulsion solutions. Its electric-powered experimental aircraft, the Spirit of Innovation, has just set several electric flight world records, proving that electric aircraft can be very capable. The Spirit of Innovation is now officially the fastest electric aircraft in the world and flew at a speed of 300.2 knots (555.9 km/h) on a 3 km test track, among other record-setting flights.

VoltAero Pioneers

The French company VoltAero, which will be represented at AERO with its proof-of-concept electric aircraft, is convinced that an aircraft that is to usher in a new age of general aviation must also necessarily look futuristic. At the presentation of its planned Cassio aircraft family, VoltAero announced that it would develop three different models of the Cassio: a four-seat Cassio 330 powered by 330 kW; a Cassio 480 with room for six occupants; and a Cassio 600 powered by 600 kW of power and room for ten occupants. For the production of the aircraft family, the company is building a new plant in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region in the west of France. For the markets in North America and Asia, VoltAero does not intend to produce the aircraft itself, but to grant manufacturing licences.

Bye Aerospace, Safran Combine

The electric aircraft manufacturer Bye Aerospace from Denver in the US state of Colorado is working at full speed on the FAA certification of its first model, the two-seater eFlyer 2. The British flying school Skyborne Airline Academy announced, when it ordered ten eFlyers in July 2020, that it would receive an initial delivery in autumn 2022.

In parallel, the company founded by George E. Bye is developing the four-seat electric monoplane, eFlyer 4, which is to find its market as a travel, training and cargo aircraft. And in addition, the company is working on the development of the twin-engine electric- powered eFlyer 800 business jet, which is expected to have a range of 500 nautical miles (926 kilometres). For the development of the electric twin-engine aircraft, Bye Aerospace is working together with the French technology group Safran, which is supplying both the complete propulsion system with its ENGINeUS motors and the GENeUSGRID energy management system.

Right at the business twin’s unveiling in April 2021, potential customers underlined their interest in buying such an aircraft in the form of paid-up letters of intent to purchase, although there is no published programme schedule for the eFlyer 800 yet. According to the company, Bye Aerospace currently has no less than 135 paid letters of intent and options on its books for the eFlyer 800. For the single-engine eFlyer models, the company has more than 760 purchase intentions and options. The total number of entries in the order book is approaching the 900 mark, including 732 contracts backed by down payments.

Harbour Air’s eBeaver

As early as December 2019, a single-engine de Havilland Beaver converted to a 560 kW magni500 electric motor from magniX has flown for Canada’s Harbour Air. But, so far, Harbour Air has only been able

to complete a little more than 30 test flights with its eBeaver to collect data, optimise the power settings and provide data for certification. The prototype has exceeded the expected performance. Next on the schedule are flights to determine the glide ratio of the aircraft, Harbour Air said.

But, before it can be flown again, the eBeaver must first undergo a mandatory routine inspection and will therefore not be available for test flights for a while. To speed up the testing, Harbour Air has decided to convert a second DHC-2 Beaver into an eBeaver. The aircraft with the registration C-FIFQ is already in the hangar for modification. All engine and fuel systems have already been removed and the airframe is being prepared for the installation of the new engine, Harbour Air announced. Due to the good performance, a four-blade variable pitch propeller from Hartzell was chosen for the second prototype. It offers an optimal balance between improved performance and low noise emissions.

E-flight is making progress on all fronts. Electric aircraft could be a normal sight on airfields sooner than most people imagine today.

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Volker K. Thomalla

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