With Israeli startup Eviation’s first all-electric commuter plane recently making its maiden voyage, what’s next for electric flight?
When create first covered electric flight back in 2019, Eviation had just launched its nine-passenger electric commercial prototype, Alice.
In late September this year, Alice took off from a central Washington airport, ascending to 3,500 feet and flying for a total of eight minutes.
This successful first flight is a major step forward in Eviation’s pursuit of Federal Aviation Administration certification, President and CEO Gregory Davis told create.
With entry-into-service expected in 2027, Alice’s first flight provided Eviation with invaluable data to further optimise the aircraft for commercial production.
“Alice is available in three versions: commuter (9 passengers), eCargo and executive cabin (six passengers),” Davis said.
“Going forward, we’ll use learnings from this proof-of-concept aircraft as we move ahead with development and plans to enter into our flight test program in 2025 with prototypes of the production aircraft.”
Transforming regional travel
Electric aviation is anticipated to connect regional communities in ways previously not possible, said Davis.
With more than 2,000 underutilised airports in the United States, noise restrictions alone reduce access to 200 plus airports. Aircraft noise is a similarly contentious issue in Australia, with the recent furore over flight path noise from Brisbane Airport fuelling the Green’s election campaign.
But electric motor manufacturer magniX, which powers Alice, found electric aircraft noise energy is at least 100 times lower than a standard aircraft’s, after testing Harbour Air’s e-Beaver aircraft.
“Electric aviation opens up more opportunities for communities where noise concerns have been a deterrent to flights, or restrict operating hours,” said Davis. “These kinds of routes will benefit access to rural communities, and open up new opportunities for travel.”
Davis thinks Alice will allow Eviation to expand service offerings from existing Australian airports too, including a commuter service between Sydney and Melbourne.
What’s new on the home front?
In 2018, when electric aviation company Electro.Aero launched the Alpha Electro aircraft in Australia, manufactured by Pipistrel and imported from Slovenia, the company foresaw myriad potential problems with charging infrastructure.
Realising this could be a major bottleneck for the industry, Western-Australia based Electro.Aero has since switched its focus to charging.
“If you think about electric vehicles, there’s maybe five or six different popular charging standards around the world,” said Richie Watson, Electro.Aero’s Charger Product Manager.
“As a result, car manufacturers must ship their cars with different charging inlets and sometimes multiple inlets, but an electric aircraft is very weight sensitive. By standardising to one aviation friendly protocol, the whole industry can move much quicker.”
To find a solution to this problem, Electro.Aero established the international SAE AE7D committee which is balloting the final AS6968 standard for light electric aircraft charging later this year, with the aim of standardising light electric aircraft charging up to 250kW around the world.
Electro.Aero also recently released its flagship portable 80kW RAPID charger which uses this standard.
“The 30-80kW power range of our RAPID Chargers have been a desirable starting spot in the current market but our team is also currently working on 200 and 400kW chargers for larger electric aircraft,” said Watson.
For electric aircraft charging, Electro.Aero is working on some additional smarts and safety features.
“One of them is to make sure that the pins on the inlet are never live, by powering the battery contactors with the auxiliary 28V supply,” he said. “This auxiliary voltage also charges the auxiliary flight battery alongside the main flight battery.
“Additionally, a connected electric aircraft can be remotely charged before a flight and the auxiliary battery can continue charging once the main battery is full.”
New SmartHangar technology in the works
Looking forward, Electro.Aero is working on developing its range of SmartHangar solutions, with its own already up and running at Jandakot Airport, near Perth.
“We’ve got a battery here that stores 50 kilowatt hours of electricity which means we can run our hangar completely off grid,” Watson said.
“We can charge the electric aircraft from the rooftop solar, and as longer-range electric aircraft enter the market we can scale up our SmartHangar solution.”
When there is excess power in the battery or consistently sunny days, employees’ electric cars can also be topped up to make the best use of surplus energy and increase the return on investment of the storage solution while electric aviation is ramping up.
“We’re really looking into the future to see what an operation looks like where a small airport has dozens of electric aircraft including eVTOL [electric vertical take-off and landing] aircraft doing five or six flights a day,” he said.
“Soon we will see electric hire car fleets out the front of airports and multiple electric aircraft in operation, and the SmartHangar’s job is to prioritise stored battery, renewable and available grid energy.”
If the grid goes down, these SmartHangars will allow flights to continue operating, meaning aircraft can keep running during power outages.
“Imagine there’s a bushfire and the power lines are knocked out,” Watson said. “You still need to be running your emergency services or water bomber aircraft, which could be electric in the near future.”
Australia’s first charge node network launches
Meanwhile, aircraft distributor FlyOnE officially opened Australia’s first electric aviation charge node network last weekend, linking Jandakot Airport with Murray Field to enable electric aircraft operations between the two.
“We are also announcing a five-node network in Queensland which should be active in the first quarter of 2023,” said Korum Ellis, Founder and CEO of FlyOnE.
The company also has three electric Pipistrel aircraft operating recreationally and with flight school partners in WA, with two more to enter service in Queensland in early 2023.
Electric planes offer a lower emissions option to help pilot training organisations decarbonise, said Ellis.
“Using electric aircraft instead of fossil fuel aircraft [also] lowers the cost of operations for the pilot training organisation due to the lower service and maintenance requirements of an electric aircraft compared to its fossil fuel-powered equivalent,” he said.
FlyOnE is currently working on an Australian-built longer-range four-seat electric aircraft, which will be the backbone of an electric air-taxi service in various Australian metro-regional areas, and meet world-wide demands as an export aircraft.
“Our electric air taxi service will be able to transport one person up to 100km, three people up to 400km, four people up to 750km and 19 people up to 500km due to the different types of planes used for different routes,” Ellis told create.
The future of electric flight
While Watson concedes Australia has a bit of catching up to do in terms of electric flight, there is great potential for development.
“If you look around the world, Australia’s probably got one of the best opportunities to embrace electric flight because it has sunny skies and it’s very decentralised,” he said.
When aircraft like Alice become operational in Australia, which conservatively speaking could offer 500–600 kilometre flights by the end of the decade, Watson thinks electric flight has the potential to cater to the majority of flights in that range.
“If you bring the price point down to 30–40% of an existing aviation gas fuel trip [with] charge from the sun, the whole business case changes,” he said.