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Air Quality

Heart Aerospace CEO Talks Electric Airplanes & 200 Plane Pre-Orders (Part 1)

Electric aviation is barely beginning to ramp up. We’re at the flattest point of the sigmoid curve of adoption, but the steep section of the curve is coming soon. Heart Aerospace is going to be taking off with it.

Electrifying aviation is a critical step in decarbonizing our world. Heart Aerospace CEO Anders Forslund is devoting his time and energy to getting there fast, efficiently, and pragmatically.

Forslund is one of those absurdly well-educated people who populate the world of low-carbon economy innovation. His first masters degree was in engineering physics, his second in space technology, and his third in astronautics and space engineering. Then there was the scholarship stint researching at MIT in probabilistic approaches to mechanical engineering. And finally, the PhD in product lifecycle management and aerospace structural design, followed by research into electrifying air transportation in Sweden.

He was obsessed with electric airplanes and being part of one of the dozens of companies in the field, sending 70-page design analyses to e-aviation startups as job applications. With all of his time focused on the space and research about Sweden specifically, he came to one conclusion: that electric aviation would never start in Sweden, which is why he is running one of the most promising e-aviation companies out of his home city of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Gothenburg is the country’s second largest city, sitting on the west coast across from the northern tip of Denmark at 57 degrees north, a full 17 degrees closer to the North Pole than New York City. However, it’s blessed with a moderate climate nonetheless, and it became a hub of Swedish engineering and aviation. Growing up in the city, Forslund had Saab Viggen supersonic fighter jets flying overhead, as they were tested from the nearby airfield. Electric car company Polestar is headquartered in the city too, making it a hub of electrification.

And now Heart Aerospace operates out of an old RyanAir facility, one Forslund flew into and could walk to his family home from.

Having failed to get the attention of other electric aviation startups, Forslund was catalyzed by a 2018 announcement. Neighboring Norway committed to all of its domestic air travel being electrified by 2040. Its constitution requires that its citizens be able to get to Oslo to represent themselves and their concerns to government expeditiously, but it’s a country of fjords and islands. As a result, a fleet of 40-year old Dash-8s fly absurd numbers of short hops daily, something that offends the sensibilities of Scandinavians, who are very conscious of the impact of climate change.

Sweden’s situation is different, without the constitutional lever to maintain short-hop flights. And short-hop flights with modern airplane engines are expensive. Turboprops are some of the most complex machines ever built, require careful and energy-intensive warming and cooling before and after each flight, and spend 10% of their fuel taxiing on shorter hops. The combination means that it costs just as much to fly 10 passengers 100 miles as it does flying 70 passengers 500 miles, and so the short-hop flights have fallen from routes globally and in Sweden. They just aren’t economically viable.

But Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future campaign went viral and global. The tiny girl sitting with her hand-painted sign in front of Swedish Parliament kicked up the already high Swedish awareness of climate change and its impacts. And with it came flygskam, the Swedish term meaning ‘flight shame’. An aligned movement, it featured personal pledges to not fly if at all possible, and came with a realization that sharing Instagram posts of flights wasn’t aligned with the reality of global warming. It wasn’t shaming others, but a personal sense of shame — and it cut Swedish domestic air travel by 11%.

And so Forslund was galvanized. He and Klara Andreasson, Heart’s co-founder and Forslund’s fiancé, knowing that they couldn’t do in Sweden exactly what they are currently doing in Sweden, went to California — Mountain View to be precise — where they got into Y Combinator, and were given the opportunity to spend two minutes in front of some of the most prominent investors in the world.

What the heck do you say to this jaded audience in two minutes? They have heard literally every pitch.

And so, back to Scandinavia to talk with SAS and BRA airlines, which operate pan-Scandinavian and regional flights. And they convinced those airlines to sign letters of intent to buy Heart’s product when it was on the market.

The two minutes with Y Combinators investors was talking about the letters of intent, Norway’s goals, and Heart’s planned approach. And so, funding. With funding came the old RyanAir facility within walking distance of Forslund’s childhood home, a team of 9, and the start of the hard work.

Anyone who has spent any time looking over electric aircraft designs realizes something very quickly: the freedom that electric drivetrains provide to aerospace engineers means that anything goes in terms of airframe. Radically unlikely planes are flying today with Lillium’s 36 wing-embedded ducted fans, Joby’s tilt-rotor commuter, and Ehang’s step-through-the-blades autonomous air taxi among many others gracing YouTube and other media with airframes unthinkable a decade ago.

But there’s a problem with that. Certification. Getting commercial airframes certified is an incredibly slow process simply because the global aviation community is the safest form of travel in the world. Decades of careful analysis of the data on crashes maintained by NASA in its Aviation Safety Reporting Database (ASRS) means that new aircraft have a lot of hoops to jump through to get into the air with passengers inside.

Forslund and team had no interest in waiting for decades to get a plane into the air. As he says, if we want to decarbonize the world, we need solutions soon. And so Heart set itself an astounding target: get a certified airplane delivered and into operation in 2026.

How do you square the massive freedom that electric drivetrains provide with the need to certify a commercial airframe?

First, you make it a 19-seater. In commercial aviation, 20 is the magic number. If you have built a 20-passenger plane, you have to fly through all the same hoops as an 853-seat Airbus A380. If you build a 19-passenger plane, you have many fewer hoops to fly through. And 19-passenger planes work for regional flights.

Second, you make it a really boring airframe, a streamlined bus with wings on top that looks like a small Dash-8 or any other smaller commuter prop plane. Incredibly stable, very well understood, with no surprises for regulators.

Third, you put all of the unique bits, the electric motors and batteries, in the nacelles, the bits on planes that hang under wings and hold the engines and propellers, and put four of them on the wings. Four of them allows one to fail with no concerns for landing safely, or even two if they are on the opposite wings. Batteries in the nacelles — about two Tesla’s worth per plane — mean that any concerns about battery fires are placed outside the cabin and away from passengers.

The scale of the plane means that Heart can reuse car and truck charging technologies. No Megachargers required, just the same technology that’s all over electric-car crazy Scandinavia. That also means it’s easy to refuel them should they have to land somewhere unscheduled. Unlike hydrogen aircraft, where there is no hydrogen infrastructure at any airport in the world, every airport has electricity. (For those who think hydrogen is the answer for aviation, here’s yet another reason why it isn’t).

And it had another major advantage. They could build a ground-test rig with a full-sized nacelle, propeller, motor, and batteries and prove all the unique portions of the aircraft. And so they did.

In five months.

With a team of 9 and a collection of suppliers, the company designed, built, and demonstrated a custom electric motor with 97% efficiency, 2300 Newton-meters of torque, and a 7-bladed propeller — in months instead of decades.

No wonder that members of the Swedish Royal Family showed up for the demonstration.

It’s quiet, too. The combination of very low engine noise and a 7-bladed prop on a high-torque motor means that the propellers don’t have to spin as quickly. They haven’t done formal sound testing yet, but it’s possible to stand next to the engine in the hanger and have a conversation while it’s running. Significantly lower noise levels means airports such as Billy Bishop’s Toronto Island airport will annoy fewer of the waterfront neighbors as they operate.

The combination of the stable high-wing configuration and the massive electric torque on the 7 big blades means that they can operate easily out of airports with 750-meter (2500 ft) runways, and there are a lot of tiny airports dotted around with that length of concrete. Most regional airports have 2 to 3-kilometer (1.2 – 1.9 mile) runways.

Electric drivetrains eliminate not only carbon dioxide emissions, but nitrous oxides as well. N2O and NO2 have a global warming potential 265 times that of CO2 and are precursor to ground level smog respectively, and burning any fuel in our atmosphere produces both of them. No burning, no global warming or smog health impact concerns. Definitely a way to make airports better neighbors.

And then, talks with more airlines. Mesa Airlines is a southwest US regional airline that also operates as United Express. Founded in the 1980s, it used to do small hops between regional airports, but over the years, the economics of modern engines have forced it to move to hub-and-spoke operations, abandoning its old routes. Twenty years ago, it was the biggest operator of 19-seat aircraft in the world, but was forced to cancel routes that provided service to communities in a dozen US states. Its average flight was just over 170 miles (270 km), well within the target range for Heart.

They saw the opportunity immediately. Electric aircraft will be cheaper to build and cheaper to maintain — a lot cheaper.

With one moving part, the electric motors in Heart’s planes will be 20 times cheaper to build and 100 times less expensive to maintain, per claims from Heart. The battery is the expensive part, but they are getting a lot cheaper for effective intersections of weight and capacity every year, and that trend is only going to continue. Per Forslund, even if very conservative 1,500-cycle replacements are modeled, they are still a lot cheaper than current airplanes. The only thing that needs to be considered is wear on the bearings, and even that’s less of a concern. The motor is wisping air around, not bouncing through potholes on the ground, so damaging forces on the components are much lower.

And so Mesa signed a pre-order for 200 planes, with an option for 100 more. 

Electric aviation is barely beginning to ramp up. We’re at the flattest point of the sigmoid curve of adoption, but the steep section of the curve is coming soon. Heart Aerospace is going to be taking off with it. Keep your eyes open not only for Heart Aerospace, but also the summary of the second half of the talk with Anders Forslund, coming soon.

 
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Written By

is Board Observer and Strategist for Agora Energy Technologies a CO2-based redox flow startup, a member of the Advisory Board of ELECTRON Aviation an electric aviation startup, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.

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