Can electric aircraft fly meaningful distances with today’s technology?

Deep Dive

People will give you different odds on future improvements to technology, especially when talking about batteries. But what if you didn’t have to gamble at all?

Christopher Chahine and Marshall Gusman think it’s possible and that is why they founded Cosmic Aerospace. The firm is developing what its founders say will be the first electric aircraft – known as Skylark – capable of flying up to 1,000km (621 miles). How? By focusing its engineering efforts on the development of a highly efficient airframe and propulsion system. The start-up has already built and tested a full-scale electric engine, and also just closed a seed round worth $4.5m led by climate tech-focused venture capital firm Pale blue dot. With a timeline to enter service of five years, there might be a new cosmic event on the calendar in 2029.

Chahine, co-founder and CEO of Cosmic tells us: “Today’s high energy battery cells contain about one thirtieth of the energy of jet fuel per kilogram. If you use those batteries to power a conventional airframe, you end up with very short ranges. To address a larger, more meaningful part of the aviation market, electric aircraft need more range.”

So what has Cosmic done differently to any other electric aircraft hopefuls? Chahine says the team looked at the problem and the market first, starting the aircraft design from a clean sheet. “We went into the design process with the question of whether we could build a sustainable aircraft that can deliver a meaningful near-term impact while also being economically viable. In terms of operating economics and sustainability, electric aircraft are unbeatable compared to other technologies out there. However, to cover a meaningful market, we need more range and we realised that battery improvements alone weren’t going to get us there fast enough.” 

They also realised that one of the key drivers for achieving meaningful distances was energy efficiency. “It is generally quite intuitive. If you can reduce the aircraft’s energy consumption per kilometre travelled, you can fly longer distances with today’s batteries. However, the design details of how to build an aircraft that’s able to attain the high efficiencies needed are a little bit more intricate.” 

If you see a rendering of Cosmic’s aircraft you could be forgiven for thinking it had no propulsion system. The energy efficiency is partly a result of the electric propulsion system itself, but it is mostly enabled by how the system is integrated into the airframe. Skylark has an abnormally long wingspan for a passenger aircraft of its size – similar to a glider, and those are designed with efficiency at the core. If you look closely the distributed electric propulsion system has been integrated into the wing to provide optimum aerodynamic efficiency.

“Without going into detail, it is the integration of the propulsion system into the airframe, and the wing specifically, that enables us to build this kind of aircraft. It makes sense from a weight and aerodynamics perspective,” says Chahine.

Putting the propulsion system in the wing as Cosmic intends to do comes with its own challenges. “You get much higher interaction effects between the propulsion system and the wing aerodynamics which is a challenge on one side. But on the other hand it is also a key enabler for things that you cannot otherwise do with a conventional configuration.” 

According to simulations, managing those interactions is possible. Plus getting rid of additional wetted area and interference drag that you would have if you had external engines is a big bonus. What the firm has to do now is develop existing technology into a commercial product that is certifiable in current and future regulatory frameworks. “Our aircraft will be certified under Part 25 or CS 25,” says Chahine.

Chahine founded Cosmic with CTO Marshall Gusman, who brings a wealth of experience in aircraft and rocket development from NASA, Kittyhawk, and Boom Supersonic, where he most recently led the preliminary design team for the company’s airliner. The team also includes Joe Wilding, a veteran in aircraft development and former co-founder and chief technology officer of Boom Supersonic.

After raising an initial $1.5m two years ago, which was used to develop its full-scale engine prototype, Cosmic has just closed its seed round for $4.5m. The new funds will go to the development of the firm’s embedded wing design. A full-scale flight demonstrator is on track for its first flight in 2026, according to Chahine.

“We will use the funds to continue our prototyping and hardware development work  on the structure’s design and engine integration side and the aerodynamics,” he explains.

With an aircraft designed for 24 passengers, Chahine says the firm is in conversation with various airlines and other key stakeholders. “The cabin is a 2×2 seating configuration, and for the size of the aircraft it will be very nice and roomy. We see the technology having an impact on the regional market first. Our usable flight range excluding reserves is 1,000km. If you’re curious to know what that means, we have a route simulator on our website. You can click on an airport of your choice and it will show you where you could fly to in our aircraft.”

Still in a relatively early stage of development, Cosmic has not yet announced any partners or suppliers. “What I will say is there are many battery makers out there, and more and more are focusing on developing high energy density certifiable packs specifically for aviation that you can buy right off the shelf. There are some strategic implications there that we are considering.”

“We will not reinvent the wheel for things that we do not have to reinvent.”

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