As I’ve covered previously, Rolls-Royce is pretty serious about electric aircraft. Now, it has announced plans to partner with Tecnam and Widerøe to deliver a working electric passenger aircraft in 2026.
“Electrification will help us deliver our ambition to enable the markets in which we operate to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. This collaboration strengthens our existing relationships with Tecnam and Widerøe as we look to explore what is needed to deliver an all-electric passenger aircraft for the commuter market,” said Rob Watson, Director – Rolls-Royce Electrical. “It also demonstrates Rolls-Royce’s ambitions to be the leading supplier of all-electric and hybrid-electric propulsion and power systems across multiple aviation markets.”
Rolls-Royce has an extensive global business power aircraft. In fact, that’s what the company has actually been doing for decades. While many people think about the car that Marty McFly almost hit, they’ve actually been out of that business for quite a while (the Rolls-Royce passenger vehicles are now built by BMW).
Today’s Rolls-Royce is the world’s second biggest manufacturer of aircraft engines, and builds many other types of big, expensive engines for the marine and power plant sectors (including nuclear reactors for both power plants and submarines). Its jet engines have been in everything from fighters like the Eurofighter, Typhoon, and F-35 (for lift) to the the Airbus A380, the largest commercial passenger aircraft there is. The company is a big player, and isn’t about to let anyone outpace it into the future.
Earlier this month, Rolls-Royce announced that its project to build the fastest electric airplane hit a new milestone, with the propulsion system’s successful taxi test. A full flight should come soon. While building the fastest electric plane might seem like a genital-measuring contest or publicity stunt on the surface, the actual goal of the project is to test high-powered electronics that can power next-generation electric vertical takeoff and landing systems (VTOL), as hovering uses a lot more power than pulling an aircraft lifted by the wings.
“This system and the capabilities being developed will help position Rolls-Royce as a technology leader offering power systems to the Urban Air Mobility market.” said Rob Watson, Director, Rolls-Royce Electrical.
Rolls-Royce is partnering with airframe builder Tecnam to build the new electric passenger plane. Rolls-Royce has already been working with Widerøe, the largest regional airline in Scandinavia, to study sustainable aviation.
“Norway’s extensive network of short take-off and landing airports is ideal for zero-emissions technologies. This aircraft shows how quickly new technology can and will be developed, and that we are on track with our ambition of flying with zero emissions around 2025.” said Stein Nilsen, Chief Executive, Widerøe.
Rolls-Royce will bring its expertise in propulsion and power systems to the table, and Tecnam will provide aircraft design, manufacturing and certification capabilities. Widerøe’s role will be to make sure that all requirements of an airline operator are in place for the new plane’s entry into service in 2026.
The New Electric Aircraft
“It is incredible to see the interest around the P-Volt, not only coming from regional airlines, but also from smart mobility-based companies. This last year has demonstrated the importance of promoting capillary connections between small communities, while reducing the congestion of the main hubs.” said Fabio Russo, Chief Project R&D and Product Development, Tecnam. “The P-Volt, like the P2012 Traveller today, will perfectly fit the scope of this programme. We are honoured and pleased to see the level of enthusiasm Widerøe and our partner Rolls-Royce are dedicating to this project.”
The Rolls-Royce press release doesn’t give much detail on the aircraft’s systems, but the rendering does give us some clues. It will likely hold 10-15 passengers and is powered by two propeller engines. The battery pack(s) seem to be mounted low in an area below the main fuselage between the landing gear. The design might not be finalized, so this could change between now and flights in 2026.
The press release gives us some ideas of range: “Before the pandemic, Widerøe offered around 400 flights per day using a network of 44 airports, where 74% of the flights have distances less than 275 km. The shortest flight durations are between seven and fifteen minutes.”
Finally, the release reveals that it will be based on the 11-seat Tecnam P2012 aircraft. The Wikipedia article (linked a second ago) gives a lot of detail on that aircraft. It does appear from the images on Wikipedia that the area between the landing gear on the P-Volt render does not exist on the ICE version of the plane. That one has a simple two-row layout inside, with every passenger getting a window seat.
It appears that the new plane will have fairly limited range, but in places without much need for long flights, that’s just fine. This electric aircraft can reduce emissions on short-haul flights in countries that depend a lot on short flights, while we can get to replacing larger planes later.
This Will Be Useful Elsewhere
When working on previous articles about charging infrastructure in Alaska, I found out just how different things can be in places that are in the upper latitudes. When permafrost, inhospitable land, low populations, and a harsh winter keep roads from being built, it falls to air and water transport to make up the difference. People need to go to hospitals, see doctors, and even do shopping in places that are far removed from where they live and work.
Electrifying transport into these far-flung northern places has seemed impossible in the past. Battery densities were enough for EVs, but not enough for people to build electric aircraft years ago. It’s clear that this is changing as battery technology improves and renewable energy becomes more available in rural areas.
Even in places that don’t have harsh winters, regional airports serving small towns could also eventually benefit from this and other upcoming developments going forward. Lower fuel and maintenance costs may even make it more profitable to operate air service at all in small towns and cities globally. Today, many small airports only offer service for those who can afford to pay for a private jet charter or those who own their own planes. This could eventually change all of that.
Featured image provided by Rolls-Royce.