Rolls-Royce has been one of the familiar names in the very early electric aircraft market. Its fully electric aircraft “Spirit of Innovation” is on the verge of attempting a new top speed record for an electric aircraft. It is aiming to fly 300+ mph (480+ km/h).
Rolls-Royce × Jaguar
In the … spirit of electric innovation, Rolls-Royce is using Jaguar I-PACE electric cars to tow the plane and as support vehicles. Jaguar Land Rover is loaning Rolls-Royce the vehicles. Naturally, this is good marketing for the brand.
There’s a bit of irony or humorous coincidence as well. The Spirit of Innovation’s battery pack provides enough energy to fly from London to Paris on a single charge, while the I-PACE has 292 miles of range, which is enough to drive from London to Paris. Highlighting yet again the energy inefficiency of flying, though, if the energy in the Spirit of Innovation was used on the ground instead, it could power 250 homes, according to the companies.
The Spirit of Innovation may soon set a top speed record in an electric plane, but that’s not the only superlative under its belt. The airplane is powered by the most power-dense battery in an electric airplane. (That said, the specific figure was not provided — so you just have to take Rolls-Royce’s word for it.)
“Rolls-Royce and Jaguar Land Rover are UK pioneers who are focused on advancing electrical technology for their respective sectors,” Rob Watson, Director of Rolls-Royce Electrical, says. “We are delighted that Jaguar Land Rover are loaning us I-PACE vehicles as we bid to develop the world’s fastest all-electric plane. It is important to us that the ACCEL programme is carbon neutral and this will be supported by having all-electric cars for ground-support.”
Rolls-Royce isn’t doing this alone, though. It has partnered with YASA, an electric motor and controller manufacturer, and Electroflight, an aviation startup, on an “Accelerating the Electrification of Flight” (ACCEL) program. Furthermore, funding is provided by Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK also provides support.
“The ACCEL project is part of Rolls-Royce’s journey towards enabling the sectors in which we operate reach net zero carbon by 2050. We will be using the technology from the ACCEL project and applying it to products for the market, bringing a portfolio of motors, power electronics and batteries into the general aerospace, urban air mobility and small commuter aircraft sectors,” Rolls-Royce states. “In a similar vein, the Jaguar Racing Formula E team’s experiences on-track help generate real-world improvements in Jaguar’s roadgoing electric vehicles. Several members of the ACCEL project team have come from Formula E backgrounds.”
The ACCEL program is also the first program Rolls-Royce has fully offset the emissions for in order to make it carbon neutral.
While Rolls-Royce might not be the first company that comes to mind when you think of the cleantech revolution, it is actually on the cutting edge and has some of the most ambitious targets in the transportation sector. “Rolls-Royce has halved the greenhouse gas emissions associated with operations and facilities since 2014 and we are well on track to meet a 2030 target of net zero emissions from operations. We’ve also committed to ensuring our new products will be compatible with net zero operation by 2030, and all products will be compatible with net zero by 2050.” Jaguar Land Rover has a similar commitment. “Jaguar Land Rover is aiming to achieve net zero carbon emissions across its supply chain, products and operations by 2039.” Is that enough? Many would argue no, and I’m one of those many. Also, I presume the market will force a quicker transition anyway.
Is Rolls-Royce New To Electric Flight? Not Even Close
I remember when I first discovered Rolls-Royce was working on electric airplane technology. It was a funny shock to me, as I just associated the company with extremely high-end, handmade cars. However, the company has been toying around in this field about as long as any company I know.
Back when CleanTechnica was a mere baby, in 2008, we published a couple of stories about Rolls-Royce’s work trying to improve the efficiency of aircraft engines. I presume that set the stage to some degree for the company’s foray into electric powertrains. It started considering considering building its own electric plane, but dropped that idea by 2014. Then, in 2017, it joined two of the other most notable engine aviation firms in the world — Airbus and Siemens — and announced the E-Fan X program. Under this program, the three would collaborate to build a hybrid electric aircraft engine. That partnership ended a few years later, but with each company still working on their own to decarbonize.
Rolls-Royce’s arguably more exciting fully electric aircraft projects took shape elsewhere in the meantime. In 2018, it rolled out a concept electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that could seat five people. It almost makes on think of The Jetsons or a simpler life in which traffic didn’t exist.
In 2019, Nicolas Zart wrote that Rolls-Royce was working to build the fastest electric airplane in the world — which we can see is still a work in progress today, but that the company is on the verge of achieving that dream. Then, in January 2020, Steve Hanley wrote an update indicating that Rolls-Royce claimed to have developed the most energy-dense aircraft battery in the world. (Perhaps you, like me, are a bit confused here about whether the battery is the most power-dense, the most energy-dense, or both. The company’s latest press release specifically says it’s the most power dense, but the 2020 article goes into detail about how it is the most energy-dense. My presumption, only slightly, is that it’s both, but we’ll try to get to the bottom of this mystery. Here are some more details from 2020: “The aircraft has three 72 kWh batteries, each with 6,000 lithium-ion battery cells and weighing 450 kilograms (992 lbs.). That’s more than a ton and half of batteries — quite a lot for a small plane.”)
In the past year, we’ve been eagerly awaiting the record-setting Rolls-Royce airplane to get into the air and set the targeted speed record. I wrote about it again in October 2020, and Jennifer Sensiba wrote about it in March 2021. However, while speed records are fun, we want to see the more mass-market results. The good news is that our most exciting Rolls-Royce story over the past decade+ is the latest one. Rolls-Royce is working with Tecnam and Widerøe to deliver an electric passenger aircraft in 2026. That’s the real deal. Let’s hope it succeeds, or even beats its target. While we wait on that plane, which is expected to hold 11–15 passengers, I hope to get a chance to jump in an Eviation Alice electric airplane, which aims to seat 9 passengers. It is expected to be delivered to Eviation’s first customer, Cape Air, in 2022, and true commercial passenger service is planned for 2024.
For now, we have speed attempts and pictures. Stay tuned.
All images courtesy of Rolls-Royce
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