With energy-efficient electric cars now becoming more of a mainstream option on the roads, it’s no surprise that there are now advanced stage projects looking to do the same in the sky. But is an electric aircraft a viable reality in the near future?
Yes, if Airbus have anything to with it. The European aviation giant is behind the E-Fan, the first aircraft to be 100% powered by electricity. A two-seat experimental aircraft, developed by Airbus Group and other commercial partners, the E-Fan took its flight last April – and was demonstrated to the world’s media at the Farnborough International Airshow in July. The next stage of its development is expected in a few weeks’ from now, when the makers reveal where the aircraft will be manufactured. An aircraft fully powered by electricity is a very exciting and groundbreaking development – something that could have huge implications for aviation industry and passengers alike. Here are some of the reasons why:
Putting energy-efficiency at the heart of pilot training
The brainchild behind the E-Fan is Didier Esteyne, engineer and test pilot. He says the aircraft’s primary purpose will be for pilot training. “I designed this plane as a training aircraft.” Esteyne says, also recommending that the E-Fan be used in the first 20 hours of flying for apprentice pilots. This makes flight training more economical and environmentally friendly.
Esteyne says that the method of flying the E-Fan will also bring benefits to the pilots, when they switch to flying a fuel-powered aircraft. As the whole focus is on energy-efficiency – making each manoeuver using the least amount of energy. The same approach can then be applied to standard aircraft.
The potential for cheaper and greener electric flight
Greener aircraft are not only good for the environment, producing no C02 emissions and less noise pollution, but they also hold exciting potential for more cost-effective flight. Airbus estimate the E-Fan would be around 30% cheaper per hour than fuel-based flight.
But the biggest challenge is in battery manufacture. The E-Fan is very light, made of carbon fibre, and very small – with two seats and a a 31 foot wingspan. And it is powered by a 120 cells lithium polymer battery system.
Currently this gives the aircraft a range of just 45 minutes, at a cruise speed of 99mph – not really enough to give it commercial potential. Engineers are still working on the challenge of how to extend this capability in this aircraft and how to power bigger ones, by making the electric batteries more efficient and more productive.
What’s the future for electric aircraft?
For now, these power and size limitations mean the E-Fan is too small to become a light passenger jet.
But Didier Esteyne has new projects in the pipeline. He’s currently working on the design of the E-Fan 2.0, which will also be a two-seat aircraft, but the seats will be placed side by side for more comfort. And it will provide a flight range of one hour. This is planned for launch in 2017.
And into the future, he plans to extend the range with an electric four-seater aircraft, that can fly for up to three hours. This electric (or possibly a hybrid) aircraft have exciting potential in the private jet market – and could shake up the VLJ market in particular, by significantly reducing costs. And undoubtedly others will enter the race to launch the world’s first passenger aircraft, powered by electricity.
There is still some way to go before electric aircraft become a reality but it’s exciting to consider what these developments could mean for aviation industry.