In its single biggest technology leap since the invention of the jet engine in 1937, and very likely to lead to wider ramifications for the aviation industry’s current balance of power, the age of electric flight is now around the corner. Electric-flight promises to shake up aviation in the kind of journeys we make in aircraft. Short-hop ‘flying taxi’ routes and regional routes can be expected to impact on railway and bus networks.
It also looks like disrupting the status quo of an aerospace industry long dominated by companies such as Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce. Challengers that can be compared to Tesla in auto-manufacturing are breaking cover and attracting major investment.
Where is electric-flight technology in its development cycle, when will we start to see commercial operations, how will it change the role of aviation as part of the transport mix and who are the runners and riders for a slice of what is forecast to be a hugely valuable industry? Those are the big questions that will shape the future of the industry and some of the answers to which are just now beginning to come slowly into focus.
Electric Aviation Technology – The Road Travelled And Route Ahead
It’s only now that commercially viable electric cars are coming to market and, even so, they are still far from mainstream. The biggest bottleneck has been battery technology able to provide enough juice for an electric car to reach comparable speeds and, trickier, acceleration rates, of petrol-engine cars. That also meant electric car batteries had to be light enough to not have an insurmountably negative impact on performance.
Trickier still was battery technology that could also provide a decent range before requiring a recharge, charging to be quick enough to be practical. And, of course, the batteries had to come at a cost and with a lifespan that meant the end price of electric cars was commercially viable. Add to that a massive infrastructure roll-out providing a viable charging points network. It’s still not quite there but close enough to build a market of early adopters over the next decade that will bring costs down and provide a catalyst for further battery technology development and general engineering efficiencies to make the most of that technology.
Of course, the amount of electric battery power, both in the intensity of delivery, depth of reservoir and weight to power ratio, is a more demanding technology challenge across the board when it comes to powering a gravity-defying aircraft. In that context it is only to be presumed that an electric-powered aviation industry will lag an electric-powered automobile industry. But perhaps not by long. Advances in battery technology driven by the electric car industry are being taken advantage of in electric flight R&D.
It will take some before electrical systems have advanced to point that they will be able to stand-alone for aircraft propulsion. Much like the development trajectory of electric powered automobiles, hybrid aircraft that combine electrical power with traditional gas turbines will be a first step.
As explained by Stéphane Cueille, head of innovation at Safran, a French aeronautics company:
“Batteries have an energy density 60 times less than kerosene [jet fuel]. Even if you multiply the current density by five — beyond what labs say we can achieve in future — you would need 180 tonnes of batteries to fly an A320 single aisle aircraft more than 3,000 nautical miles. The aircraft’s take-off weight is only 80 tonnes, so that gives you an idea of the challenge.”
So hybrids will be, at least, the first step but even this will result in big changes to aircraft design and manufacture. Large jet engines attached below wings will evolve into multiple, smaller motorised fans spread across an aircraft, which are anticipated to open up new design concepts that it is hoped will be both more aerodynamically efficient as well as potentially safer.
Electric Flight – The Players: Old and New
In 2015, Airbus started conducting its first time trials involving its new generation of prototype electric battery powered E-Fan aircraft. Three years on and an intense race is underway between the big aerospace companies and a new generation of highly-financed start-up challengers. However, only 30% of 2017’s 100 officially announced electric-aviation projects involve established aerospace companies with the others new blood. It is thought many more start-ups in the space are still in stealth mode, with China a particular hotbed for R&D in the electric aviation space.
It is almost a guarantee that among the manufacturers of the new generations of electric aircraft a Tesla or two will come to the fore.
Electric Flight – A New Business Model
The advent of electric-powered aviation will inevitably disrupt the sector. The business model of the world’s biggest aeronautics companies like Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce is anchored on their engineering of giant jet engines. However, propulsion is likely to no longer exist as a stand-alone system in electric-hybrid aircraft. It will be combined with a single on-board electrical power system that will also encompass other power needs from air conditioning to lighting and the cockpit. These kinds of holistic systems may not be the best fit for specialist gas turbine makers.
Quoted in the Financial Times, Frank Anton, head of eAircraft, the Siemens unit dedicated to electric aviation, explains:
“From a technical point of view, there will be reasons to change how integration is done and which systems are to be considered just components, as opposed to complete systems.”
The electric aviation industry will also likely be split into two. One half will be multi-passenger planes holding up to 120 or so passengers, like the kind of aircraft used for intra-regional flight by budget carriers such as EasyJet and Ryanair. The other will be ‘flying car’-type vehicles. Smaller aircraft with the passenger capacity of a typical family car. Google co-founder Larry Page is heavily invested in leading start-ups in this area. Many believe he is positioning himself as a future kingpin of the flying car sector. He now controls three of the world’s most advanced flying car start-ups – Opener, Kitty Hawk and Cora.
Zunum, a Washington-based electric aviation specialist estimates the current market value of inter-regional commercial flights is worth around $1 trillion globally. An electric-flight model could multiply this several-fold. It’s big business and big business opportunities lead to investment and, usually, progress in the development of new technology.
The Future of an Electric Flight Industry – Where, When and How Will We Fly In Coming Decades?
Electric flight will also bring major change to the business model of flight as a travel service. Flying taxis, the technology for which is based on drones, are expected to become common for short traffic-avoiding, cross-city hops over the next decade or two across the world’s metropolises. This kind of new vehicle and transport service is closer to reality than many might guess and is expected to debut at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The city’s administration has formed an advisory council with a view to an attention-grabbing pilot scheme being run during the sporting showpiece.
This kind of flying vehicle also has a clear market in remoter rural areas either as form of public transport or as personally-owned. So, flying taxis or cars is one new business model and that which is expected to be the most valuable and ‘day-to-day’. The other side to the electric aviation industry will be an evolution of the current commercial aviation model.
Electric and hybrid-electric aircraft have the potential to open up new flight patterns and routes. Firstly, electric-powered take-off result in much lower levels of noise pollution. This will hopefully mean airports can operate around the clock and be closer to more densely populated urban centres. The result would be expected to be smaller planes for inter-regional transport within a country or between neighbouring countries taking some of the load off passenger rail networks and cutting down the time required for this kind of journey, which would be expected to have a knock-on positive effect on economic activity.
The Norwegian government is so confident in the future of electric aviation, at least for smaller aircraft covering distances of up to several hundred miles, that it has committed to transitioning all domestic aviation to electric power by 2040. Norway’s fjords and rugged terrain mean that cheap, environmentally friendly and low-noise flight is seen as a much for efficient mode of transport than road or rail-based alternatives.
The journey will not be a short one and the latest technology in the world of electric-powered propulsion and batteries still has some way to go before the electric aviation industry can truly take-off. But few now doubt it will. Safety is also a big question, particularly when it comes to smaller flying taxi-type traffic above cities. The aviation industry has a safety record it is extremely proud of and will not want that tarnished by the revolution coming, regardless of its potential commercial value.
But electric flight is coming and over the next two decades, starting with hybrid vehicles, will become a reality. It should bring with it huge advantages for travellers and with that, the economy.