Diamond, Airbus, MagniX, Ampaire, and other companies have in recent years begun showcasing the results of extensive development and flight testing on electric platforms. Their research shows that electric motors will aid in improving flight-critical systems, complex transmissions, and mechanical reliability, all the while driving down operating costs and excess waste. On top of contributing to a lower-emissions future, electric airplanes could cut fuel costs by up to 90 percent, maintenance by up to 50 percent, and noise by up to 70 percent. Another advantage is that electric technology could open the gates to missions in urban, suburban, and defense environments, which are currently dominated by fossil-fueled aircraft and ground vehicles.
One of the main current limitations with electric aircraft is with energy storage, but it readies general aviation for the emergence of a very specific model of aircraft—lightweight, slim, and intended for short-haul trips.
Whilst electric batteries are rechargeable, many run for a set duration of time. Since the development of an electric engine remains cost-intensive, and battery energy density is relatively low, all current viable electric aircraft offer only short-range flights. Another factor to balance is that of the increase in cooling equipment required – developers are mindful of the extra weight it brings, in addition to the weight of the batteries themselves. This means that current electric aircraft designs prioritize weight, which limits passenger loads – which is ideal for general aviation and shop hops.
For instance, the eDA40 is a four-seat aircraft. Diamond’s eDA40 is a fully electric, decarbonized version of the industry-renowned training model, the DA40. Powered by the lightweight EPiC Ecosystem battery module developed by U.S.-based Electric Power Systems (EPS), the eDA40 is poised for high-paced, high-volume operations and will bring operating costs down by nearly 40 percent.
Companies also face other challenges when it comes to certifying electric technology. Demonstrating airworthiness involves countless hours of flight trials, especially when it comes to semi and fully autonomous aircraft. Those keeping up with news of the driverless, electric-powered Tesla bursting into flames or its trunk popping open without warning, might harbor similar concerns about the safety of Tesla’s aerial equivalent.
There’s much work ahead (and underway): working with regulators and government agencies to stimulate investment, incorporating the right engineering and design talent into original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and finding a way to scale production through ethical supply and recycling chains.
In the interim, hybrid planes may well populate the market first. French-Singaporean company HES Energy Systems spent twelve years developing Element One, a four-passenger aircraft with the world’s first hydrogen-electric model, a unique combination that simultaneously allows for increased flight time and reduced carbon emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells are lighter than batteries, meaning hybrid models can fly for longer. Ampaire’s six-seater Cessna SkyMaster, modified to a hybrid-electric model, flew first in Hawaii and then in Scotland, demonstrating its versatility. In short, hybrid planes make use of electric technology while providing solutions to the limitations of purely electric platforms.
Whilst current and better-known electric aircraft models are tweaks on preexisting designs, we may also witness a deliberate move towards smaller, lower-power, light recreational aircraft intended for a non-polluting, noiseless, “less is more” approach to flying. As general aviation takes clean energy sources under its wing, the uses and boundaries of human flight will also expand and loosen. When flight shaming isn’t such an issue anymore, climbing into a zero-emissions aircraft for a short flight could become one of life’s simple joys.
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