Are battery-electric aircraft about to have their Tesla moment?
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The surging popularity of small battery-electric aircraft has caught established players like Cessna, Cirrus and Piper by surprise, says IDTechEx in its latest report.
Meanwhile, there are a growing number of start-ups cashing in.
“[US company] Electraflyer has announced that it has passed crossover, meaning it now sells more battery-electric aircraft than polluting ones,” the market research firm says.
“[Slovenian manufacturer] Pipistrel sold over 100 battery-electric aircraft last year as they take over from its traditional offerings.
“[US based] Bye Aerospace does not even make conventional aircraft. With its Tesla-style approach, its order book exceeds 720 battery-electric aircraft evenly split between two and four-seaters.”
And earlier this month, DHL Express announced it has placed an order for 12 fully electric cargo planes from Seattle-based electric aircraft developer Eviation.
These are just a few of the growing number of start-ups exploring how battery technologies can be harnessed to enable zero emission short haul flights.
The advantages of small electric aircraft with batteries are lower operating costs, zero emissions, and zero noise.
The downsides? They are relatively heavy — which reduces payload — and they can only go relatively short distances.
The main motivation of buyers of electric aircraft right now, mostly pilot training and air taxi businesses, is to save money.
Established aircraft manufacturers in the industry have been caught out by the popularity of small electric aircraft, IDTechEx says.
“Noticing this, [$US11.7 billion market cap] Textron, owner of Beechcraft which is under threat, has belatedly said it will look into electric,” it says.
For big aircraft like jumbo jets, the future of fully electric flight is a few decades away, says Emily Pickrell, UH Energy Scholar.
“If a jumbo jet were to use today’s batteries, 1.2 million pounds of batteries would be required just to generate the power of the jet engine it would be replacing,” she writes.
“This weight would effectively need an additional eight jet planes just to carry that weight!”
For now, attention has turned to two-propeller fixed-wing aircraft up to 10 passengers for business and regional use which, like their smaller brethren, would beat the traditional cost of ownership, with the zero emissions and faster climb typical of battery-electric.
But there is no simple way to scale from the 2-4 seaters, IDTechEx says.
“They need disproportionately more power and any new aerodynamics, where proposed, has issues,” the company says.
“For instance, the battery team at IDTechEx caution that solid-state lithium batteries of the necessary size and energy density are unlikely to be rolled out by 2026 but several putative makers of regional aircraft promise otherwise.”
Usually, the aerodynamics and construction of these larger battery-electric aircraft are required to go faster, but 50% faster means three times the battery, IDTechEx says.
“The acceptable range may be 500 nautical miles and conventional design may be inadequate for this. Cars put in double the battery to get more range but that is less effective with aircraft,” it says.
The ‘Tesla approach’ to cars of many small improvements in powertrain efficiency, light weighting, and simplification has lessons here, IDTechEx says.
“For the larger aircraft, better opportunities can be taken from cars,” it says.
“For example, a regional aircraft can have 500km of cabling but in cars, at least 50% of cable weight is eliminated by higher voltage, improved geometry, and board-to-board wireless connection.”