Aviation Hybrid-electric airplane Zunum Aero

Published on April 19th, 2017 | by Nicolas Zart


The State & Promise of the Electric Airplane

April 19th, 2017 by  

The electric airplane industry truly is the final frontier. Hauling a battery pack in a car for propulsion is fairly easy compared to dragging one in the air. Below is the state and promise of the electric airplane — the new wild frontier.

Electric airplane Hamiton aEro

Electric Vehicles In Air, In Water, & On Land Have Different Battery Needs

When I first read about electric flying cars, airplanes, and helicopters back in 2009, I thought it would be best to wait until the price and weight of lithium batteries went down before getting excited. It sounds as if we might finally be at the right moment when technology is starting to deliver on its promise to take to the sky.

As mentioned above, bringing into the air a battery pack for propulsion is a whole new level of complexity compared to an electric land-based vehicle. Back in 2009, I got up close to the now defunct project Angelena II, a project of the port of Los Angeles turning a 1960s yacht into an official plug-in hybrid vessel. It was a daring project and well ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it drew the ire of the foaming-at-the-mouth local mainstream media. The media furiously angled the story at how the public port was using its public money converting a yacht. The project was really about creating the future of efficient seagoing vessels. The Angelena II took to the water with a very promising state-of-the-art plug-in hybrid (PHEV) system, but the project shut down after several ups and downs.

One thing that became quickly apparent then was that there are various types of batteries for EVs. Batteries that favor power are great for electric cars since they power the cars quickly to move in and out of traffic. However, sea vessels need more constant energy and storage than raw power. The trade-off is like an Atkinson cycle engine that is more efficient than an Otto cycle engine meant for raw power (if you happen to know engines). The Angelena II chose lithium-phosphates, the same one Boeing probably should have chosen on its original 787 to avoid a dangerous, fiery result. The fairly new electric flight industry is working out these problems.

You can’t just put a giant version of a Tesla battery pack into an airplane and expect that to be the right choice for an airplane.

6 Electric Airplane Takeoffs

Electric airplane DARPA USA 1

We’ve covered a few electric airplanes on CleanTechnica and on our sister publications EV Obsession and Gas2. Below is a summary of several standout contenders in the space.

Hamilton aEro

I recently wrote an article about the potential of the Hamilton aEro and its financially accessible kit for an aerobatic electric airplane. This is the ideal plane, in my eyes, since its electric power plant is perfectly suited for its short flight time.

Zunum Aero

Another potential player in the bigger passenger flight industry is Zunum Aero, which squarely aims at short regional air travel with ~100 passengers per flight. This means that the company can potentially cover short regional flights without customers having to fly to bigger and nightmarish airport hubs. The company makes you dream of flying from San Jose to Pasadena, California, or Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts) to Hartford (Connecticut) directly … and potentially daily.

Hybrid-electric airplane Zunum Aero


This doesn’t mean the big boys are absent from the picture either. While Boeing has invested in Zunum’s Aero, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is lending funds to a funky and definitely particular-looking hybrid design. The Excalibur is an electric VTOL (Vertical TakeOff and Landing) aircraft that will rely on Rolls Royce’s AE 1107C engine (pushing 7,000 HP at the shaft) and Honeywell’s generators, with an ingenious 24 ducted fans electric distributed propulsion (EDP) system. In a nutshell, the distributed ducted fan thrust comes from a synchronous electric drive system, which enables the Aurora to hover efficiently or fly at high speed.

Electric airplane

However, the real news lies in the efficient design of a light electric motor that delivers enough torque to take onboard a light electric airplane.

Extra 330LE

Then Siemens steps in. As well as being involved with the Hamilton aEro, Siemens has an electric propulsion system for aircraft in the Extra 330LE aerobatic plane, which recently set two speed records. The first was a top speed of 337.50 kilometers per hour (209.713 mph) over 3 kilometers (1 mile) for an electric aircraft with a takeoff weight under 1,000 kilograms (about 2,250 lbs). The other was a top speed record of 342.86 km/h (213 mph) for an electric aircraft with a takeoff weight of over 1,000 kilograms.

Airbus E-Fan X

Finally, one more giant has taken up the electric flight challenge directly. Airbus proposed the e-Fan two-seater prototype flown at the Farnborough Airshow in the UK in July 2014. Although production of the aircraft was halted this month, Airbus decided to go for a larger E-Fan X. The E-Fan X will open up a family of larger, more powerful personal aircraft that could fly within 3 years. Using a four-motor platform based on the Cri-Cri, four MGM Compro units, each engine uses contra-rotating propellers producing 60 HP. Airbus claims series production would begin based on a four-seat E-Fan 4.0 touring aircraft.

Electric airplane DARPA USA 2

Wright Electrics Airplanes

Finally, this leaves us with Wright Electric’s bold plans. This is a new electric aircraft startup that claims all-electric commercial flights from London to Paris within a decade. Although the battery technology might not be there yet, a lot can happen and has happened in 10 years. Electric cars barely reached the 60-mile range a decade ago and now are dipping their toes north of 200. The EPA recently announced the Tesla 100D has an official range of 335 miles.

Wright Electric still plans to fly electric but has changed its goal from every short flight being electric in 10 years to every short flight being electric within 20 years. Its first plane is designed for flights from New York to Boston, London to Paris, and Seoul to Jeju.

Electric airplanes are the final frontier in many ways. Although experts believe helicopters are a long way from being commercially viable, VTOL electric vehicles will go hand in hand with electric airplanes in the next decade.

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About the Author

Born and raised around classic cars of the 1920s, it wasn't until Nicolas drove one of the first Tesla Roadsters that the light went on. Eager to spread the news about those amazing full torque electric vehicles, he started writing in 2007. Since then, his passion led to cover renewable energy, test drive many cars, do podcasts and film everything that is new and efficient. Nicolas offers an in-depth look at the e-mobility world through interviews and the many contacts he made in those industries. "There are more solutions than obstacles." Nicolas Zart

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