Electric airplanes — is the tipping point upon us?

Just like a Chicago Cubs appearance in the World Series, predictions about the coming electric aircraft boom seem to pop up every year, only to be crushed by reality. A brief stroll around the internet shows that “The Year of the Electric Aircraft” was 2010, then 2011, maybe 2012, definitely 2013 and — seriously this time — 2014. It didn’t happen.

Is Siemens’ new engine a breakthrough?

Given that sorry past, it would be foolish to make any such predictions about 2015, so I won’t. But a reading of the latest trends shows that real progress is being made in the world of electric engines, batteries and aircraft design. If 2015 isn’t “the year,” might 2025 be?

Four recent developments should be intriguing, if not revolutionary, for general aviation pilots:

  • Siemens just introduced a new electric aircraft engine that offers a previously unseen power-to-weight ratio. The 110 lb. motor produces 260kW (roughly 350 hp) at 2500 RPM, and because it turns at a typical piston airplane RPM, heavy and expensive gearboxes are not required. The company’s eventual goal is to build a regional airliner with this engine technology, but Siemens already has a relationship with Diamond Aircraft for an electric motorglider. Might a four place general aviation airplane be in the future?
  • Another European giant, Airbus, is making plans to deliver its E-Fan airplane in 2017. This two seat, low wing airplane is more technology demonstrator than cross-country transporter, but its initial specs alone might make it a compelling trainer. The company is serious enough that it recently announced plans to build a factory in France, and has partnered with Daher (manufacturer of the successful TBM 700/850/900 line of turboprops).
  • Electric car pioneer Tesla Motors is building its monumental, 5 million square foot “gigafactory” in the Nevada desert right now. The company hopes the massive scale will allow it to cut battery costs by 30% as it prepares for its first mass market car. Many businesses, including aviation, are hoping this project offers some trickle down benefits for battery technology, in terms of weight, size, performance and price. After all, a great electric motor is only as good as the batteries that drive it.
  • Finally, the drone revolution is disrupting aviation from below. While the $1000 quadcopters get most of the attention, there is a wide variety of $20,000 to $75,000 Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) that are much closer to airplanes than toys. These are making rapid advances, some driven by military requirements, in aircraft construction, propulsion technology and battery design. Some UAS manufacturers are even growing up into full-size electric aircraft, like Yuneec’s partnership on the GreenWing International e430.

As usual, general aviation is too small to really drive a major trend like this. In this case, we’re simply riding the coattails of electric cars, UAS, and European Union environmental standards. All of these industries have plenty of hot money splashing around and thousands of smart people working on the trickiest problems. Some of that might eventually help Cessna pilots.

It’s easy to believe the hype and get carried away — and some have. A more serious thinker must acknowledge that major challenges remain, and “coming soon” probably means 5–10 years, not six months.

One of the first issues to deal with is the FAA’s approach to certifying electric aircraft and batteries. Lithium batteries, in particular, bring up all kinds of certification questions, including how to deal with overcharging and crashworthiness standards. The FAA last year banned electric airplanes from carrying passengers, just the latest sign of its cautious approach. Before an electric Cessna 152 could be certified, the FAA will have to be convinced that safety standards have not been compromised (think 787 battery fires). That takes time.

Electric-only airplanes are already flying — but will they get certified?

There are also serious hurdles in the arenas of economics and engineering. The ever-present range/payload challenge is here, just like on piston engine airplanes. To carry more passengers, electric airplanes need bigger motors, which demands more batteries, which drives up weight and demands bigger motors. The Airbus E-Fan, for example, has a range of only one hour.

Even assuming these engineering challenges can be solved (probably by major advances in battery technology), pilots may be looking at some expensive airplanes. The latest batteries are not cheap, and neither are potential certification programs. There are a lot of fixed costs to be recovered.

But just as it’s easy to get carried away by the cheerleaders, it’s also possible to give the naysayers too much credit. Even with the (significant) questions in mind, there is real reason for hope. For a start, the latest electric aircraft projects are not hobbies for eccentric entrepreneurs. Airbus, Daher, Siemens and many others are serious about delivering commercial aircraft in the medium term that are powered by electric motors or at least hybrid propulsion systems. There certainly isn’t a similar movement to reinvent piston engines.

Maybe more importantly, electric aircraft would change some fundamental issues of aircraft ownership. For one, the cost of electric power is much less volatile than fossil fuels. If a major war breaks out in the Middle East, electricity prices would certainly be affected, but nothing like we have with 100LL.

Plus, changes in energy policy or environmental regulation would affect the FBO far more than the aircraft owner. Take the unleaded fuel transition for an example. To get from a 100LL industry to a lead-free industry, many pilots will probably have to spend a money on new or modified engines. It’s a seismic shift. In an electric aircraft future, the pilot doesn’t care too much what he plugs into. Infrastructure changes fall on the airport operators, not the pilots. And the infrastructure to deliver electricity to airports is already in place.

Finally, we cannot ignore the environmental and noise impact of our airplanes. I’m hardly a tree-hugger, but pilots in Europe and even California can attest to the battles that often erupt over airport noise or pollution. We can dismiss it or even mock it, but our opponents’ perception is often our reality. Electric aircraft, while hardly a miracle cure, would probably save at least a few airports.

Electric airplanes will not replace Cirrus SR22s or TBM 900s anytime soon — the range and payload numbers simply don’t work for serious transportation. But that may not be all bad. The most beaten down segment of aviation over the last 10 years has been the lower end: student pilots learning to fly in Cessna 172s and recreational flyers in Light Sport Aircraft. If, for now, electric propulsion is only practical for these one hour flights, that would still be a significant boost. It could be less expensive on an hourly basis, but it could also be simpler. Ask a young pilot about the most confusing thing to learn in flight training and you may hear the engine. Hot starting a fuel-injected piston engine is almost ridiculous to an outsider.

Besides, any student of technological history knows that major advances usually come from below, not above. Simple technology is initially dismissed as too limited to make an impact, but over time, it becomes “good enough” to replace the existing model. I’m not investing in any electric aircraft companies just yet, but I may say nicer things about European environmentalists — they might accidentally push general aviation into a brighter future.

Some day, that is.

Originally published at airfactsjournal.com on May 4, 2015.

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