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Why electric flying is much closer than you think

13 Jan 2021
Electric flying probably isn't the first thing that currently comes to mind. The aviation industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, and a 180-passenger electric airplane seems to be a distant future dream. On the other hand, flying has been at the center of sustainability discussions after the transformation to electric driving. And perhaps we shouldn't think in terms of major aircraft, as most innovations start small. With these things in mind, electric flying is highly relevant — and it's much closer than you might think.

Available aircraft: a look at current developments

First, let's have a look at current initiatives. Two-seater Pipistrel has been certified and is available to market. The first-ever electric aircraft to obtain a certification, it creates hope for those who are yet to come: aircraft up to nineteen passengers will require the same certification type. And there are a few parties that will give it a shot in the near future: nine-seater Alice will be ready to market by 2022, and Heart Aerospace will market its nineteen-seater by 2026.

MagniX, a manufacturer of electric motors intended for the aviation industry, is closely involved in electric flying in several ways. First, it supplies electric motors for newly designed electric aircraft and electric powertrain conversion (converting existing aircraft into electric aircraft). An example of the latter includes Harbour Air. Second, MagniX expects to market its own eCaravan — which also converts existing aircraft into electric aircraft — within 5 years.

The aircraft we can expect within the coming five years will have a capacity of less than twenty passengers and a range of up to 800 km. The bigger the aircraft, the more difficult it will be to obtain a certification — but Pipistrel's certification has set an example, and a five-year period seems realistic.

Charging and other concerns: are airports ready?

To facilitate electric flying, we should be able to charge electric aircraft. The higher the capacity, the shorter the charging time. One look at the automotive industry shows developments go fast: the most powerful DC charging station in Europe for cars can deliver 400 kw, and a 600-kw charge rate (which will be extended to 1.2 mw in the near future) is available for heavy-duty vehicles.

Given these developments, super chargers will likely find their way to airports. Furthermore, OEMs claim they'll be able to realize charging times that can be compared to the turnaround times of conventional aircraft — which is important, as it ensures electric flying will be an attractive alternative to operators.

What are the challenges, then? First of all, a charging infrastructure will need to be set up, which will require the necessary investments. Moreover, we should manage peak load on the grid — for example, by charging outside peak hours or using smart battery technology.

How will electric flying impact mobility and aviation?

Assuming the technology will be available within the next five years and we’ll be able to offer commercial services at affordable ticket prices, how will electric flying impact mobility in general and aviation in particular?

First, short-distance, small-scale flying will be sustainable. We'll no longer need 180 passengers to make ticket prices affordable, as electric flying will be much cheaper. This means less densely populated areas will become more accessible by air. Electric flying will allow us to feed existing hubs or regional airports from those areas and launch new point-to-point connections between destinations for which passenger volumes have been too small to fill today’s conventional aircraft at affordable ticket prices.

All this will ultimately lead to more competitiveness in the field of mobility. Whether electric flying can compete with other means of transportation depends on the route and the existing infrastructure. For example, it doesn't make a lot of sense for an electric aircraft to compete with the high-speed train between Amsterdam and Paris. But it can be a great alternative to 200+ km domestic and international destinations that are less accessible.

In any case, electric flying is a lot closer than most people might expect. And with its short-distance potential, it's a great first step in making aviation more sustainable!

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