When two tech powerhouses like Google and NASA offer a Google-sized cash prize for the most fuel efficient electric aircraft, you know the results are going to be pretty stunning, and they were. Pipistrel-USA.com won the first place prize of $1.35 million yesterday with a decidedly futuristic all-electric design featuring cockpits on each wing instead of on the nose of the plane. NASA’s CAFE Green Flight Challenge was sponsored by Google and administered by the CAFE Foundation, a nonprofit organizaton dedicated to exploring the science of personal aircraft.
The CAFE Foundation and Electric Aircraft
Before we get to Pipistrel, CAFE has an interesting story to tell. The organization (CAFE stands for Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency) had its genesis back in the 1970’s and pioneered its own high-efficiency flight competition in the 1980’s, helped along by the Experimental Aircraft Association. It takes a village, right? One of CAFE’s originators had already built an electric car, so the foundation’s roots in electric flight go deep. Back then, the competition had a prize of only $2,000 but the response was fantastic and since then CAFE has developed a raft of analytical tools to keep the tech advancing.
Pipistrel-USA’s Prizewinning Green Aircraft
The Green Flight Challenge allowed for a winning aircraft to fly 200 miles in less than two hours while using less than one gallon of fuel per occupant, or its equivalent in electricity. Both Pipistrel and the second place winner were all-electric aircraft, and both of them beat the challenge by a wide margin with a little more than half a gallon fuel equivalency in 200 miles.
An Electric Flight Challenge for Google and NASA
Pipistrel’s team leader, Jack W. Langelaan, stated in a NASA press release that “two years ago the thought of flying 200 miles at 100 mph in an electric aircraft was pure science fiction” but Pipistrel-USA.com is not planning to rest there. Langelaan, who is an assistant professor in aerospace engineering at Penn State University, blogged that Pipistrel would contribute $100,000 to a prize for the first electric airplane that can fly faster than the speed of sound, and he expects someone to take that prize within the next five years.
Why Does NASA Care About Electric Airplanes?
NASA’s interest in electric flight dovetails with President Obama’s recent call for the space agency to let go of some of its more routine operations such as the space shuttle, and focus its resources on transformative technologies that leap beyond the moon. NASA pioneered the use of solar technology, and it’s a good bet that its promotion of electric flight technology will end up with applications here on earth as well as in space.
Google and Clean Tech
Google sucks up a lot of energy with its data centers and its symbiotic relationship with electronic goods has entangled it deeply in e-waste issues, but on the other hand the company has also marked out a leadership position in transforming the way a high tech society produces and uses energy. Just a couple of examples are Google’s new energy efficient data centers, and its investments in initiatives to help finance home solar power installations. That includes a partnership with SolarCity, which recently made news for a home solar package that includes an EV charging station…which could mean that a solar powered personal electric aircraft charging station for your home is just around the corner. Stay tuned!
Image: Electric Aircraft, winner of NASA Green Flight Challenge, courtesy of NASA on flickr.com.