The future of electric air travel
Electric cars are becoming pretty normal now. With over 660,000 EVs on UK roads at the moment, they’re already being widely adopted as the future of road travel…
…but what about in the air? Do electric aircraft exist and, if they do, are they actually a viable option? Afterall, air travel created 915 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019 alone so, although that’s less than road transport, it’s still a huge amount of nasty stuff we’re pumping into our atmosphere. Could we be on the path to not just reducing that figure, but removing it entirely? All while improving noise pollution?
Read on to find out a little bit more.
What is the future of electric air travel?
TARDISes and Millennium Falcons for everyone. Next blog?
Only kidding. Some very clever people are working very hard indeed to make air travel more sustainable and eco-friendlier, with a large group of them working on electric-only power for aircraft.
The short answer is – yes, the future of air travel will likely somehow incorporate electric powertrains into the industry, just like road transport has and is doing. But, it could be quite a few years before you’re hopping on an electric A380 around the world.
Currently, a standard airliner would have anywhere between two and four jet engines to thrust it into the air. Those engines are technological marvels and fascinating pieces of equipment, but they’re extremely complicated and not great for the planet in the long-run – like most other internal combustion engines. What if we could take the same lessons we’ve learnt (and are continuing to learn) from road going EVs and apply them to aeroplanes? Could we really change the aviation industry?
A massive undertaking
The thing is, creating an electrically powered aircraft is a huge task, especially one the size of an airliner. It’s much more than just a case of swapping the ICE (internal combustion engine) for an electric motor. So, let’s start a bit smaller.
It’s a task many are undertaking, with WSP (Williams Sale Partnership) saying there are now more than 100 electric aircraft projects under development for a range of different purposes: from electric “air-taxis” to medical aid machines or even for use on short, regional, commercial flights.
Aviators aren’t just changing the engines or power sources of planes; they’re rethinking the entire way we travel in the air. For example, Beta Technologies have created an electric aircraft called the Alia which, when stationary, can take off like a helicopter but travel longer distances like a light aircraft. It’s part of a wider movement to completely revolutionise the way we fly, with many manufacturers rendering crazy looking helicopter-come-aeroplane type machines that can hover using fans, then fly forward using propellers (or a multitude of both). Will they actually make it into production though?
There are few different ways they could, but some think it’s quite far-fetched to say the aviation space will be enhanced by EVs as quickly as road transport is. Though, of course, just ten years ago, if someone told you a 300-mile drive in an electric car wouldn’t require you to stop and charge, they’d laugh at you, and yet here we are. The potential for change in this landscape is enormous, but it’s a big job.
Of course, there are quite a few loops this new electric era would need to jump through first before they’ll be allowed to go ahead, with there being a staggering number of rules and regulations (for good reason!) when it comes to introducing a new aircraft into the mainstream, to ensure its safety and reliability.
If we’re to make electric air travel mainstream, pilots will also need to undergo extra training or learn to understand these new, specialist aircraft. That is itself, a huge operation too.
The potential rise of eVTOLs
Some companies are exploring air travel with eVTOLs. An eVTOL, or electric-vehicle-take-off-and-landing machine, is a modern type of aircraft that can take off and land electrically, and completely vertically too, like a helicopter.
They’ll have onboard batteries that store the energy required, as every other EV does, combined with multiple electric motors that power fans, propellors or adjust wingtips and flaps to help manoeuvre the aircraft in complete silence. Why are they important? Because they don’t require a runway, can travel at up to 200 miles per hour and have a range of around 100-150 miles according to The Cooldown.
Joby Aviation, for example, are one of many working on various eVTOL projects that could be used as an air-taxi service as early as 2024 through Uber Elevate. Their mission is to, “save a billion people an hour a day by bringing all-electric aerial ridesharing to cities around the world”, with timesaving through air-travel clearly their focus.
SOURCE: Joby Aviation
Aerial ridesharing could become common, with it being possible to book yourself a trip through an app – just like roadgoing Ubers. But, eVTOLs would need permission from the various aviation bodies, like the Civil Aviation Authority, and have designated places to take off and land, before they can do so. It’s possible, though, that you could be getting an emission free air-taxi well within your lifetime.
Of course, the big challenge – and what we’re all wanting to know – is whether we’ll see electric air-travel on a larger scale. If we could harness EV technology in this way, the air pollution reductions would be enormous.
But, sadly, the bad news is that it’s unlikely this’ll happen any time soon, with some people predicting we won’t see any full-sized, fully electric airliners within the next 50+ years.
In 2020, two companies by the names of AeroTEC and magniX combined forces to create an electric plane – and it worked! At the time, it was the largest fully electric plane ever made, exciting. How big? Well, it was a converted light-aircraft that could originally seat a whopping… 9 people. Oh, and yes, they took all the seats out (apart from the pilot’s) to save weight… and it only flew for 30 minutes… but it’s a start, right?
9 seems to be a repetitive figure, with new player in the field Eviation and their all-electric aircraft named Alice. Designed to carry nine people (that’s seven passengers and two crew), it’s currently under development and had its maiden flight in September 2022. It’s a much more promising product.
With a range of 250 nautical miles (287 on the ground), it’s not going to take you or the other 300+ people wanting a holiday from London to New York, but it’s a fantastic breakthrough in the electric aviation world. If nothing else, it’s showing that electric air travel is possible.
How would you charge an electric plane?
This of course leads us onto charging. Fairly obviously, the reason airliners aren’t already electric is because they have to have enough range to make their entire journey in one go. You can’t “pull over” an airliner for 20 minutes to top up the batteries if you’re running low and, unlike running out of charge on the road, emptying a battery in mid-air would be catastrophic. So, they’re rightfully taking no chances.
Therefore, we need to explore making batteries more energy efficient and able to take on charge much more quickly without overheating. Currently, low-cost commercial carriers turn planes around to go somewhere else just 30-50 minutes after previously landing. Even with an ultra, ultra rapid charger, that wouldn’t top up a plane’s batteries enough to allow for the next trip safely, so they’d need to wait around a bit longer than their jet powered counterparts… which costs airlines money.
The principle would be the same though, you’d just need to plug the plane in, in theory. Though, we’re not sure a 3-pin plug would do it justice.
What other electric aircraft exist?
Airbus, the manufacturer of the monster, double-decker A380 airliner, have designed no less than seven all-electric aircrafts. From single-seaters, to fan propelled vertical take-off machines and small jets, they’re on a mission to decarbonise their fleet.
They’re not quite world cruising crafts just yet though – one of the most notable electric planes of the last ten years would be Airbus’ E-Fan 1.1 which successfully crossed the English channel from Lydd, England to Calais in France. It took the battery powered, dual-motor, two seat aircraft just 36 minutes to complete the journey.
But it’s not just Airbus that gave EV flight a go, all things space experts NASA are in the process of developing and building their own electric plane, called the X-57 Maxwell, capable of cruising at 172 mph at 8,000 feet. Just a few days ago in February 2023, they completed testing on one of the major systems making them one step further to that first full flight.
They’re not the first to fly, though…
Nope, in fact, aircrafts powered by electricity have been around since as early as 1883, with brothers Albert and Gaston Tissandier in France mating a Siemens electric motor to their airship and conducting a short flight.
It didn’t go very far, and the weight of the batteries made coming back down to land somewhat tricky, but it showed that it was possible… it was just easier and cheaper to use a combustion engine – which has always been the case until we started taking electric propulsion seriously in recent years.
There’s a model of that airship in the Science Museum, London, if you’re curious.
Could electric aircraft transform parcel delivery?
There’s not much more frustrating than a parcel being delayed or rerouted because a driver has been stuck in traffic. There are also some places on the planet where road transport is really tricky, not through lack of trying, but because of inaccessible areas without infrastructure for trucks or vans to get to.
So, what if we could fly parcels electrically, in silence, straight to someone’s door remotely without emitting any emissions? Well, it’s a possibility, with the rise of electric drones.
DHL, for example, are taking this very seriously indeed with their Parcelcopter. Their YouTube account has shown it in action, delivering vital supplies to a remote village without the need for fuel or even a pilot onboard. If we could harness this tech here in the UK, you may never lose a parcel again… (or, of course, it’ll end up the other side of the world when they program Manchester, New Hampshire in the US by accident, instead of Manchester, UK).
DHL seem confident though that this is not just a fad, but in fact “the future of logistics.” Jürgen Gerdes, a Management Board Member for DHL Germany, says:
“This could take the shape of deliveries of emergency medical supplies or deliveries to regions situated in a challenging geographical location,” adds Gerdes. The Parcelcopter arguably allows us to offer people in such areas a new kind of access to the flexible and, most importantly, rapid dispatch and delivery of goods”
So, basically, you could be seeing flying electric parcel drones a lot sooner than you might have previously thought.
What are the benefits & challenges of electric planes?
There are quite a few benefits to electric air travel in the future, but an awful lot of challenges to overcome first.
I’m gonna go for a strong cup of tea now. Researching this topic is a mammoth task because there are so many little things we could and are doing within this space. I didn’t touch on autonomous electric planes once, for example.
Ultimately, the future of air travel is potentially very electric indeed, but it will be an awfully long time before you’re hopping on a battery powered 787 Dreamliner for your next holiday, if at all in your lifetime.
What’s more likely, however, is us seeing electric aircraft used to improve the pollution, comfort and noise levels of shorter, domestic flights in smaller countries. I don’t know, say, like… the UK. If Eviation get their Alice aircraft in the mainstream for example, or maybe that air-taxi we spoke about becomes a thing, it would have a huge positive impact on how flying negatively affects our planet.
Fly into an EV by next week
(That pun was too good to resist, I’m not sorry).
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