Electric Aviation Is Already Here

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A number of companies are working on electric manned aircraft, but at present, things are very limited. The energy needed to move large planes is just too much for current battery technology to store, except for short flights. As the technology improves, we may eventually see electric aircraft carrying large numbers of passengers or large volumes of cargo over long distances. So, most of us think electric aviation is something that only exists in the future tense.

Imagery from a recent infrastructure project I did in New Mexico.

What if I told you that even today, fossil fuel-powered aircraft are already being replaced by other aircraft powered by electricity? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what’s happening around the world.

Photography, The Obvious Use Case

Just a few years ago, the only way to get a picture from above was to use either manned aircraft or pigeons. The pigeon approach was the only way to do this in the 19th century, but after the Wright brothers, people had more options. Given the inability to relay orders to pigeons while in flight or see what they’re getting pictures of, the manned aircraft approach was the best for most serious uses.

The cost kept most people from getting aerial imagery, though. Not only do you need a good photographer, but you also need a pilot (or two), a plane or helicopter that costs a lot to maintain to FAA standards, fuel, airport fees, and many other costs. Adding all this up meant that engineering and architecture firms would usually get put on a waiting list so the aerial photography company could line up a couple dozen sites in an area before arranging for the flight. They couldn’t stay on one target for long, so images were often rushed, but they could get you some at a reasonable price if you were willing to compromise on camera angles and overall quality a bit.

Now, you can hire a certified UAS pilot for a fraction of the cost and get detailed, carefully taken photos. There are pilots in every city, and it’s not hard to get a pilot in rural areas, either. Not all of them are great photographers, but others (like myself) were already experienced photographers with relevant degrees who would have ridden in a plane or helicopter in years past for such work.

With a small lithium-polymer battery, almost all drones are battery EVs (BEVs). Not only does this simplify operation and maintenance, but it keeps pollution and noise from being such a problem.

While aerial photography was only a small part of the aviation industry, pilots who used to do that kind of work just aren’t getting many photographers to hire them these days. Drones are doing it for most uses today.

One odd exception that SpaceX fans may have noticed is that RGV Aerial Photography gets photos of the SpaceX Boca Chica launch site from a manned aircraft. Specifically, they rent a Cessna 152 and generally get images from 1200 feet above ground level (practically the same as sea level at Boca Chica). A number of photographers used to get drone images from the site, but after the installation of natural gas infrastructure that SpaceX claims to operate “critical infrastructure,” and under Texas law, drones are now not allowed nearby without permission, which SpaceX does not grant.

The broader point here is that there are still regulatory situations that favor manned aircraft for photography, but they’re few and far between these days, and will become more rare over time.

Mapping & Infrastructure

Another area where small drones are replacing manned fossil fuel-powered craft is mapping. Most people think of Google Earth imagery as coming from satellites, and Google even calls its photographic view “satellite” view in its apps. However, most of the imagery comes from aircraft. Government agencies frequently hire companies to systematically fly over their jurisdictions and snap images, which are then stitched together into a map for a variety of purposes. Planning, building code enforcement, and road construction all benefit from this.

The imagery is then sold to other companies, and Google then purchases the imagery for Google Earth and Google Maps. In the end, you get a “satellite” view, but it all comes from aircraft.

Here, too, drones are replacing manned craft. Government users are already deploying drones, with more coming on every day. Here’s some footage from an infrastructure project I’m working on for New Mexico DOT:

Other Public Safety

According to Police Chief Magazine, hundreds of police departments and dozens of states are using drones in the field. In some cases, they’re replacing helicopters, or augmenting them. In other places, where departments are too small to justify spending money on manned aviation, it’s the first eye in the sky they’ve been able to field.

Drone makers such as DJI know how useful they can be, and are making specialized, affordable models for government users, like the Mavic Enterprise. It comes with a spotlight, loudspeakers, and a beacon accessory for various missions. Additionally, it can come with an infrared camera to see thermal differences, which can be helpful for fire departments and search and rescue missions.

The Future

As batteries improve, more and more manned aviation will be able to go electric, but UAS are going to replace many of their uses long before that happens. It’s already happening, and will continue to happen as technology improves.

Right now, it’s relatively easy to get a Part 107 license to operate drones for other than commercial use. One must study the rules and regulations involved, learn to read aviation maps (sectional charts), and pick up other skills to pass the test. After a background check, the license is issued. With self study (much of this can be done with free videos), one can spend less than $200 to get licensed. Nearly any business or government entity can put drones to work.

The remaining roadblocks are waivable regulations, like the prohibition on flying at night, or beyond visual line of sight. The night prohibition is relatively easy to get waived, but specialized equipment is generally required if you want your operation to go past where the pilot can see the drone. Once the price of sufficient sense and avoidance systems comes down, it will get easier for drones to replace more and more manned aircraft operations.

For example, with a small fixed wing drone, whole cities could be mapped in just a few flights if the pilot can send it past line of sight, or larger drones could be used to help put out wildfires. In other words, the technology is mostly there, but regulations are keeping drones from replacing manned aircraft even faster. The FAA has very good safety reasons for this, but the larger point is that electric aviation will dominate the future long before batteries can power manned aircraft.

My First EV

I’d like to close on a more personal note. Technically, a drone was my first EV. I started with a DJI Phantom 2, and quickly upgraded to an Inspire. These days, I’m mostly using a Mavic 2 Pro, which gives excellent low-light images.

Given the much lower costs, drone adoption, both professionally and for fun, is outpacing electric car adoption in the United States and most other countries. An October estimate puts plugin cars at about 1.4 million vehicles in use, while the FAA says there are 1.7 million registered drones. The number of drones not registered is unknown, but probably puts the number well above 2 million.

I’m probably not the only person whose first EV will be a drone, and many people will begin to get familiar with the idea of charging and operating an EV with a drone. In some ways, it could prove to be a gateway drug to further electrification of other vehicles in one’s fleet.

With all this in mind, the positive environmental impact (both on the air and on the ground) of battery-powered sUAS will probably be much greater than anybody could have anticipated just 10 years ago.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1983 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba