Part two – the electric revolution.

Supersonic, electric or unmanned – which technology will usher in the next generation of civilian aircraft? In the second part of this series, we look at how electric aircraft are set to reduce emissions and bring about sustainable propulsion for every traveller.

A question of sustainability

Aviation’s contribution to manmade climate change is currently a leading topic of conversation worldwide. Prominent environmental activists, such as 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, are now shunning air travel altogether – Thunberg recently made headlines by sailing from the UK to America in a zero-emissions yacht.

While commercial and business aviation remain a vital part of many people’s lives, it is clear the future of air travel depends on meaningfully reducing the associated environmental impact. Already, innovative solutions are entering the mainstream, from the use of sustainable alternative jet fuels, to the implementation of carbon-offsetting initiatives.

It’s electrifying

However, the most innovative of these solutions is the development of purely electric propulsion, resulting in low- or zero-emissions flights. Electric aircraft are one of the only solutions proposed that would fundamentally change airplane technology, eliminating reliance on fossil fuels.

Numerous companies are hopping on the trend, attempting to create brand new aircraft; retrofitted engines for electric propulsion; or even ‘air taxis’, electric vertical take-off and landing craft (eVTOLs). Manufacturers include: H55, producing a solar-powered airplane; Pipistrel Electric, producing electric flight trainers; and Eviation Aircraft, which is partnered with Samsung on an all-electric nine-passenger regional commuter turboprop.

From light jets to turboprops

Director General of the International Air Transport Association, Alexandre de Juniac, recently said that we’ll likely see the first electric passenger airliners within the next 15 years. Yet for smaller jets, the timeline is much shorter.

At this year’s Paris Air Show, Pipistrel was given special clearance to fly its Alpha Electro Trainer over the most densely populated area of Paris, showing increasing confidence in the aircraft’s safety. Additionally, Eviation already has Cape Air as a fleet partner for its electric commuter turboprop, named ‘Alice’ – first test flights are expected later this year at Eviation’s US headquarters in Arizona.

Besides new aircraft, electric propulsion systems are being developed that can be retrofitted to existing airplanes. Already, electric propulsion systems by manufacturer MagniX are being certified to work on the small de Havilland Beaver utility planes; and are in development for Cessna 208B Caravans.

How does it work?

All the above airplanes rely on some combination of batteries, electric motors, wings and propellers. They use batteries to power an electric motor instead of jet fuel to power an engine; which results in a much quieter flight experience.

Electric aircraft are also often unconventional in their design, as they must be built around their electric propulsion systems. Eviation’s Alice, for instance, is powered by three rear-facing pusher-propellers, one in the tail and two counter-rotating props at the wingtips to counter the effects of drag. The turboprop also has a flat lower fuselage to aid lift. This results in an unusual shape, with long, slim wings and a pointed nose.

Infrastructure issues

Despite the early promise of electric aircraft, the infrastructure to support them is limited. Pipistrel currently has plans for five Pipistrel SkyCharge stations in airports across Los Angeles; and there are charging stations scattered across Europe, particularly in Switzerland, the Nordics and Germany.

Nevertheless, the obstacles to overcome with regards to electric aircraft are small. Plus, the lessons being learnt by manufacturers of ultra-light electric jets today will be relevant in the future for bigger commercial airliner producers – meaning this form of aviation technology may be even closer than we think.