Electric planes: prepare for takeoff

Electric planes: prepare for takeoff

Electric flight is coming. The first commercial electric flights are anticipated as soon 2030, and this would appear to be one of those enthusiastic forecasts that is likely to come true.

In all corners of the world tinkerers and titans of industry are working their way toward the dream of powered flight without fuel. Tomas Brødreskift, CEO and co-founder of Equator Aircraft Norway, subscribes to the 10-year scenario for the first commercial electric powered passenger flight.

“The pace at which technology is progressing is amazing. We must find emission-free solutions for transportation, including flight, and this will drive exponential development in electric and green propulsion,” Brødreskift predicts. “For us, it is both exciting and frustrating. We know it is coming, but it’s hard to develop a strategy when things are moving so quickly.”

Not that this unpredictability is dampening Tomas Brødreskift’s optimism. “Recently I attended Europe’s biggest small plane exhibition, with a 4,000 square meter exhibition hall dedicated to electric planes. The push is already strong, and the shift is being discussed everywhere,” he says. “Political pressure is driving development. Governments are pushing agencies to adapt more quickly as people demand more sustainable air travel.” This, he believes, represents the tipping point for electric flight: “This is a freight train that is not stopping. You can either get on board and adapt or get left behind.”

Fitting the pieces together

Brødreskift picked up the thread of zero-emission flight from a German visionary, and is advancing it on the runways, and waterways, of rural Norway. He says his devotion to aircraft design started as a 27-year-old student of industrial design, when he met Günther Pöschel, the founder of Equator Aircraft Company in Germany.

Pöschel built three different aircraft prototypes from 1969 to 1985 using composite construction. Composites were lighter than steel or aluminum, opening the door to alternative propulsion, though that would come later in Equator’s history. “He did not experiment with propulsion, but rather with materials and aerodynamics,” says Brødreskift. “This initially sparked my deep interest in making a highly efficient aircraft.”

The first concept back in 2009 was in fact not electric. “We started out looking for alternative combustion solutions,” Brødreskift tells. “We also wanted to focus on the sports plane market, instead of reviving Günther’s designs for six-to-eight seat aircraft.”

For Equator, that meant seaplanes. But as Brødreskift says, “Any seaplane is a compromise. Historically, you ended up with a bad boat, and a bad airplane.” Guided by their vision of versatility, Equator set out to strike the right balance.

“When we revived the composite designs in 2010, electric propulsion was new. Some gliders were using it, but only to achieve altitude or in emergencies,” Brødreskift relates. In fact, Equator landed first on a hybrid solution: “We needed the extra power to get off the water, and we envisioned an electric-combustion hybrid. We were essentially designing the plane around a fantasy power plant.”

Their search for a suitable power solution led them to one of the first manufacturers to deliver electric power solutions to aviation. “Once we saw that there were opportunities, we got more interested in electric propulsion and began to conceptualize a plane around an electric motor.” Equator eventually managed to collect enough private and soft funding to start developing their own hybrid drive train. “This included a 100kW electric machine, batteries and a combustion range extender. We are currently flying this system, although on pure electric power in the initial phases of the test program,” says Brødreskrift.

The evolution of electric

Like other industries, aviation is benefitting from rapid developments in battery technology. “Batteries are so much better than just a few years ago, and technologies are making everything lighter, so our focus is shifting from range extender combustion motors in a hybrid solution to working more on extended battery flight.”

Electric flight is becoming doable for even a small company, Brødreskift says, but certification of electric propulsion for aircrafts remains difficult, both financially and time-wise. “We are hoping for at least one certified propulsion product from the major manufacturers. If we had off-the-shelf engines, we could focus on developing airframes, but so far this has not happened. For us, that makes it a waiting game. In the meantime, we have our internally developed system.”

The confluence of industry players offers hope though: “Mergers and collaborative efforts should accelerate the process somewhat. Though their focus will be on heavy aircraft first, we’re excited to see where all the work put in by these players will lead.”

Just add water?

With the many hurdles already in the way of electric flight and composite airframes, some might question the logic of adding water to the mix. Brødreskift’s reply is neatly pragmatic: “Landing on water gives added flexibility for access. The water landing alternative is an obvious advantage in an emergency, but it can also be nice to go wherever you want to go if you are flying over wilderness areas or along the coast.”

Reviewing the business case for amphibious aircraft, Brødreskift reports that today’s float planes have three to four times the accident rate of land planes, and the fleet is ageing and needs to be renewed. “The market could grow if planes were cheaper to operate, safer and more flexible.”

He adds that 70-80 percent of major cities are located adjacent to water, making downtown-to-downtown routes using seaplanes potentially attractive. “Noise is the main restricting factor in cities, and electric takeoff and landing would be virtually silent. If a company can make good commercial mobility solutions for accessing populations through air and sea, we believe the business opportunities could be significant.”

The smart way forward

There are a few likely scenarios for breaking into the market, Brødreskift says. “Flight schools use two-seaters for training. They would require one hour of noise-free and affordable flight in order to practice takeoffs and landings in locations close to urban areas. This should happen within five years.” For now, Equator’s focus is on the next phase of potential business models, with electric aviation as a means of transport. “There are already quite a few routes of less than 30 minutes that could potentially be electrified.”

Larger aircraft will also be tried out in the same period, he says. “Airbus and others will gain valuable data to guide decisions for future, starting with seating capacity of anywhere from 10 to 19. The challenge for us is being able to share in the knowledge that these companies are acquiring.”

Brødreskift believes that the first companies to market will be those that adapt conventional solutions, ensuring a smoother approach to certification. “Radical innovations will only prolong the certification process. In this respect, we are taking a more pragmatic approach to building both new airframes and propulsion systems. We believe this is a better long-term solution, as aircraft in general and the technology currently in use are ripe for renewal.”


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