1903. That was the first time that an aircraft flew. On that glorious day, Orville Wright flew for a total of 12 seconds and a distance of 120 feet.
Technology has moved on a lot since then, not only in aviation, but also in other sectors of the world. As such, great advances have been made in electric cars. Here, you just need to think of the Tesla Model S Long Range Plus that has a range of 402 miles. Or maybe the Tesla Model S Plaid that promises to be the fastest accelerating production car in the world.
These are all things that we didn't think were possible only a few years ago. They’re certainly a far cry from the first electric cars that had mediocre performance and a range of only a few miles.
In the aviation industry, development hasn't stood still, though, and electric airplanes have formed part of aviation engineering and development since the 1970s. For decades, these airplanes were experimental with only a short range and almost no ability to carry any weight.
But like cars, technology is evolving at a rapid pace and it seems that commercial electric flights now appear imminent.
But where exactly are we in the quest for electric flight? Are there any electric airplanes available now, and when will the first commercial electric flight be? With this post, we’ll look at these questions in more detail.
Challenges of Electric Flight
Despite an interest in electric flight for so long, there are two big challenges that are keeping electric airplanes from flying.
First is weight. In order to get an electric airplane flying, you need a battery that has a lot of power but doesn’t add a lot of weight. In this sense, the technology is simply not ready for commercial electric flight yet.
When it comes to power, it's a vicious circle. So, when you want to add more power to the airplane to get it flying, you need a bigger battery which, in turn, adds more weight. To get the airplane flying with this added weight, you need an even more powerful battery which adds more weight again. This cycle can just go on and on simply because the technology isn't available yet to give airplanes the power they need at a weight light enough so they can fly.
Despite this, there are companies that have completed electric flights by achieving the perfect balance between weight and power. However, these aircrafts have a low range that doesn't make them viable for commercial flight operations.
Once these challenges are successfully addressed, commercial electric aircraft will become more commonplace.
Are There Already Electric Airplanes Now?
Despite these limitations, there has been consistent innovation in the aviation industry in the past few years and the number of electric flights has increased since 2019. For example, H55 flew BRM Aero equipped with an electric propulsion system in June 2019. Likewise, Ampaire flew a Cessna 337 with a hybrid engine, also in June 2019. There are, however, two standouts in the crowd that have shown commercial electric flight is indeed possible.
In December 2019, the Seattle-based electric engine manufacturer Magnix claimed the world's first commercial electric airplane flight. They modified a seaplane belonging to Canadian commuter airline Harbour Air by replacing its conventional engine with an electric one. Although the flight lasted only four minutes, at that stage, Magnix said it will be capable of flying for 30 minutes while also having 30 minutes’ worth of power in reserve.
Then, in June 2020 Magnix flew the biggest commercial electric airplane so far when they modified a 9-seater Cessna Caravan for electric flight.
Pipistrels Velis Electro, is the first electric aircraft that is type certified in the world. The two-seater airplane is used for flight training and to give pleasure flights to people who want to experience zero emissions flying for themselves. It comes with a battery pack that provides about 1/5 of the power of a Tesla Model S while also having a range of 90 minutes.
What Does the Future Hold?
As a result of this progress, there has been a shift in the aviation industry which lends more credibility to electric propulsion and battery power, and the industry now recognizes it as a feasible alternative in small aircraft and short commercial flights.
However, at this stage, long-distance flights are simply not feasible. The power necessary to fly a passenger airliner would require a huge amount of battery weight that it would have to carry. For example, an Airbus A380’s range would be reduced from 15,000 km to just 1000 km considering the weight of batteries it has to carry if it was to rely solely on electric power.
Facing these challenges, Airbus and Rolls-Royce have already completed tests on a hybrid airliner, the E-FanX. With this airplane, one of its four engines is replaced by an electric motor which makes it more fuel efficient while also reducing emissions. Unfortunately, this program was halted in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Airbus is also working on a series of hydrogen-powered airliners. Their emissions would basically only be water vapor which, like electric flight, means zero emissions. Despite these innovations, electric power is only a reality for small aircraft and it's in doubt whether we would see a long-haul commercial electric flight within the next 20 years. In fact, manufacturer Boeing says that a fully airliner is still decades away.
It appears that, according to the aviation industry, longer range commercial flights are still some way off, and electric power is, for now, limited to only short flights. However, a few years ago many said that long-range electric cars were simply not possible. This means, as technology advances, commercial electric airplanes may be with us sooner than we think.
Although we can't offer you a fully electric flight just yet, we are the one-stop platform for your private aviation experience. We are working effortlessly to bring private aviation closer to clients all over the world by making flying accessible and affordable. With unlimited access to a worldwide network of aircrafts, our clients can enjoy the most tailored and cost-effective flight services wherever they are.
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