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The future of electric aircraft

30 Oct 2018
With the rise of electric cars and trucks, everyone has started looking at aviation, an industry that has only just begun to experiment with renewable energy sources. The question is not 'if' but 'when' the market for non-fossil fuel powered aircraft will take off. In this blog, we'll fill you in on the latest developments.

Flying taxi: well underway

Think the first all-electric aircraft will be a long-haul wide-body commercial plane which carries over 500 passengers? Initially, we will have to look closer to home - more specifically, to the market for urban mobility. Congestion in European cities is estimated to cost 100 billion a year, and now that many cities get increasingly crowded, it is easy to imagine how a flying taxi could greatly improve personal mobility.

The hype surrounding electric VTOLs (vertical take-off and landing) is well underway. Dozens of properly funded startups and large players such as Airbus and Boeing are developing prototypes fast.

Regulatory aspects seem to form the biggest hurdle for urban air mobility. For example, cities are currently restricting aircraft to fly low over buildings. The EU and Airbus, however, are leading the way in this regard. They recently launched their Urban Air Mobility Initiative (UAM), recruiting European cities such as Hamburg, Brussels, and Maastricht for demonstration projects that will take off as early as in 2019.

Electric long-distance aircraft: (a bit) further away

Pioneers in electric long-distance aircraft are up for a bigger challenge, as long-distance travel with more than 1 or 2 passengers requires a huge amount of energy. Today's lithium-ion batteries don't seem to be ready for this - they have to compete against kerosene burning engines while having an energy density of just over 2% of kerosene. Although electric engines are 3 times more efficient, current battery technology would require almost 15 times more battery weight to deliver the same amount of propulsion.

Developments in battery technology could partly cover the gap - it is estimated that new solid-state batteries could offer a 2- to 3-fold improvement in energy density. However, to cover 500+ kilometers in all electric aircraft, we'll need more drastic improvements. So in the short term, the solution is hybrid: we should combine an electric engine with a gas turbine or hydrogen fuel cell.

Pioneers developing this type of aircraft promise to take it to the skies by 2020.

Electric aircraft: what will it do?

Of course, electric aircraft will reduce CO2 emissions. But that's not all. For example, hybrid aircraft are claimed to be quieter, consume less energy, and require only a fraction of the current runway length. Such elements could drastically change the market for regional flights in the short term, while operating costs - and, therefore, ticket prices - will drop.

So far, only a handful of airlines seem to have picked up on this, with EasyJet releasing the most ambitious of plans. However, not only airlines will see the market change. Airports located close to city centers or in areas far from large hub airports will benefit significantly. After all, the noise reduction and lower ticket prices for regional flights could make them much more attractive!

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