In a short cameo in Iron Man 2, Elon Musk makes a brief appearance where he says to Tony Stark, “I’ve got an idea for an electric jet”, to which Mr. Stark nonchalantly replies: “You do? Then we’ll make it work!” (pretty… light DD process btw).
And make it work we (desperately) need to.
The environmental impact of air travel is devastating, with the global aviation industry producing around 2% of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Last year alone, flights produced 895 million tons of CO2. These are pretty eye-opening figures.
Yet, with 4.4 billion passengers carried by the world’s airlines in 2018 and demand for air travel set to increase over the next few decades, something has to change. To bring our emission curve down, we’ll need to decarbonize the airline industry.
The rationale for doing so should be clear: “a future that includes electric flight is a positive one, slashing the fuel use of current aviation, reducing emissions and creating a cleaner environment.”
Which brings us back to Iron Man: can we really make it work?
The answer isn’t exactly straightforward, but let’s try to keep it simple. A plane only flies when the lift force matches the weight of the plane, making it necessary to balance the power potential of the energy source being used, with its weight.
For a plane to cover any meaningful distance, batteries need to pack a lot of power and energy. And batteries are heavy.
Battery technology so far hasn’t carried the necessary energy density to make that equation work. However, now we’re reaching a tipping point for battery technology, where we can obtain a meaningful range. We’re not yet on par with the efficiency of jet fuel, but the development is fast.
The environmental impact is just one benefit of an electrified airliner. We would also get reduced sound pollution, and possibly also safer operations and cheaper service since electric propulsion systems consist of less mechanical parts.
This is what Heart Aerospace wants to build.
Heart’s mission is to electrify air travel and deliver the world’s first electric airliner certified for commercial flight by 2025. With an operating range of 400 km (250 miles) and carrying capacity of up to nineteen passengers, the all-electric aircraft (ES-19) will serve as the MVP of that bold vision.
Heart Aerospace is based out of Sweden — an early adopter market with proactive government support, strong local demand, and a long history in bringing aircraft to the market. As a result, Heart Aerospace is well-positioned to leverage the region’s critical infrastructure and unique talent pool to its advantage in building a sustainable aircraft powered by electrical propulsion.
Led by Anders Forslund, an aerospace researcher with a background from MIT with a PhD in aerospace product development, the team combines Sweden’s talent pools in electro mobility (Gothenburg, the home of Volvo), with aerospace engineering (Linköping, the home of SAAB). Heart’s team members have a background from SAAB, HondaJet, Gulfstream, Sikorsky, Bombardier, Syberjet and more.
When we met Anders at Y Combinator W19 demo day, we had already heard about the company through Elise, a Vinnova financed project about electric aviation in Sweden, that he helped ignite, which gained a lot of media attention in the Nordics. Even though Heart Aerospace is a very ambitious project, and it’s still early on its journey, it was an easy decision for us to join forces with Norrsken and a couple of more investors to help propel it into the future.
Just as the first airplane flight started off with humble beginnings, the next-generation of air travel will be rolled out in iterative steps until it’s ready for prime time. The future of flight, however, remains undisputed. We’ll need to transition towards non-fossil fuel flight in the future and the question now is how fast we can make that leap.
When it arrives, “electrical propulsion will be the biggest revolution for the industry since the 1940s”, radically changing airlines’ operations to conform with the environmental pressures surrounding it.
As we transition the global economy towards adopting and operating on sustainable energy, the aerospace industry is a behemoth that we cannot afford to leave behind in the fossil fuel era.
Tony Stark may not have had all of this in mind agreeing to ‘make it happen’ , but if we’re to succeed in making it a reality, we’ll definitely need his brash optimism.
Huge shoutout to Joao who helped out more than a lot on this post.