Electric Propulsion Research Gets a Charge from Upgraded FAA Test Facility
The FAA has upgraded testing and research into electric aircraft propulsion systems.
By Jim Tise, FAA
Envision a near future where airplanes outfitted with electric engines glide cleanly and quietly through the air, whisking 100 passengers on short-haul flights from New York to Boston, Paris to London, Doha to Dubai.
This year, the FAA upgraded a laboratory to help visions like this become reality. The facility at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., is researching electric propulsion systems (EPS) for airplanes, emerging technology that will revolutionize flight in the coming decades and reduce aviation’s carbon footprint and operating costs alike.
Jeff Engler, CEO of Malta, N.Y.-based Wright Electric, thinks companies like his will benefit from the FAA’s unique facilities that offer testing capabilities they couldn’t afford on their own.
“When there are common testing facilities, it reduces the cost for industry and enables new members to enter the market.” — Jeff Engler, CEO of Wright Electric.
The safety research completed at the upgraded laboratory — from developing test methods for establishing endurance of EPS or even looking at fault protection of EPS — will be shared with industry at large. Their research includes altitude, temperature, and humidity testing — the sort of environmental factors that must be taken into account to ensure EPS work safely. The capability to test for electromagnetic interference is coming soon, as well.
In return, collaborating with industry helps the FAA build industry standards for EPS. All of the current rules, guidance, and policies for aircraft propulsion systems are focused on combustion engines. EPS react very differently than combustion engines in the way they work and in the way they might fail.
The facility could also help the U.S. aviation industry compete with European countries, which are pouring large sums of money into electric propulsion, Engler added.
magniX is another of the many companies exploring EPS, and successfully tested their system on a retrofitted Cessna Caravan in 2020. The FAA approached the company in 2018, wanting to help develop regulations that will protect flight safety. magniX provided the agency with one of its systems to explore its capabilities and perform initial environmental testing in its altitude chamber.
“The FAA was quite forward thinking that electric aviation was going to be the future and has helped magniX gain unique insight into the operation and prove out the capability of our system,” said Ben Loxton, head of aircraft applications and testing for magniX.
From one- to two-passenger “air taxis,” to general aviation airplanes and large commercial airliners, companies of all sizes are exploring and developing new concepts that will enable planes to fly without combustion engines. Analysts project the transition to electric engines will begin with smaller planes this decade and next, with wide-body commercial jets flying by the mid-2040s.
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“It’s just a matter of how fast it’s going to happen,” said Jon Doyle, manager of the FAA’s Fuels and Energy Section, who is overseeing the laboratory.
Electric engines have a number of advantages over combustion engines. From a sustainability perspective, they help limit aviation’s carbon footprint, which is estimated to account for 2 to 3 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions. The upgraded laboratory is an important part of the FAA’s effort to address sustainability and environmental issues.
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In addition to eliminating fuel costs for operators, electric engines could lead to lower maintenance costs as well — Electric engines have fewer moving parts, meaning they don’t need the expensive periodic overhauls that turbine or piston engines require.
Engler believes that the laboratory could also increase competitiveness within the electric aviation field, which should eventually lower the price for flying on electric-powered aircraft for consumers.
“There’s already a huge flux in industry,” said Doyle. “It’s not just small startup companies. You also have Airbus and Boeing, GE, and Rolls-Royce, the biggest names in industry making huge investments.”
The $2.5 million cost to upgrade lab at the William J. Hughes Technical Center is a modest down payment on the future of aviation. But don’t underestimate its productivity.
For example, the lab exponentially increases the FAA’s safety research capability from 270-volt batteries to 1,200 volts.
“Voltage dictates the efficiency of things,” said Doyle. “With higher voltage you’re able to get higher efficiencies.”
The FAA hopes to expand research areas and capabilities to systems powerful enough to propel a regional jet.
Engler said the working relationship with the FAA has been “fantastic.” He noted the agency’s “dedicated support people who work with our engineers. We’ve been able to accomplish our objectives. We’re really grateful for the expertise of the people at the FAA.”