Imagine if airlines could save 30 percent on fuel if they switched to electric mobility? A hybrid-electric aircraft is one way to get there. United Technologies Corp. (UTC) wants us to use such airplanes based on hybrid electric turboprops for future regional. The company is testing and opening the electric urban air mobility (UAM) market as we speak.
Can Hybrid Electric Regional Airliners Bring 50 People into the Air for an Hour-Long Trip?
By now, there is enough to convince even the most skeptical people that electric aircraft are coming relatively soon. This UTC release is another piece of evidence. Currently tested and soon to be seen buzzing over our heads in major cities (within a few years in some places), these electric aircraft will take us from point A to Z in the air, bypassing road traffic.
Collins Aerospace and Pratt & Whitney have converted a Bombardier Dash 8 project 804 into a hybrid-electric powerplant mounted on one side to fly a proof of concept. The aircraft will be used to show its technical viability, to prove that its hybrid propulsion system not only works but is economically viable. The obvious benefits are the massive fuel savings and maintenance. Why call it project 804? It was named for the straight-line distance (804 miles) between a Collins facility in Illinois and a Pratt & Whitney facility in Quebec. Simple, no?
Technically, the 2-megawatt hybrid-electric engine should be enough to shoulder 30 to 50 passengers between 200 and 250 nautical miles on hour-long trips. That segment is always highly focused, efficient, and segmented, so cutting fuel costs by 30% is nothing to sneer.
The beauty of an aircraft is that it needs its 2 MW peak power at takeoff but then only needs half for regular cruising operations. Batteries, thus, just need to push out large amounts of power for a short while before hitting a more manageable cruising output. And the better the energy density of batteries get, the sooner we will have battery-operated regional aircraft.
In this case, efficiency means sacrificing some range. For the time being, the Dash 8 will see its range drop by around 40% down to 600 miles for that efficiency luxury. In order to explain the logic behind the design, Jason Chua, executive director of advanced projects at UTC, was quoted saying:
“Given that 99 percent of the missions that these aircraft flies are under 500 miles and the drafting fuel savings you can get, this seems like a pretty reasonable trade-off.”
The Near-Future of Hybrid Electric Regional Airliners
No matter how you look at it, the electrification of aviation is happening in a different way than it did for the automotive industry. You can’t just slap on an electric motor at every turbofan and call it a day. You can electrify what was once heavy ancillary systems, such as pneumatics, and with the use of additive manufacturing, 3D printing, and carbon fiber, you can have a fine platform moving close to electric power for significant flight. Currently, tackling the propulsion platform directly with a hybrid system, the door is opening to electricity.