Magpie Aviation open sources electric cargo aircraft white paper

Deep Dive

In the spirit of it taking a village to build an aircraft, Magpie Aviation is open sourcing an electric cargo airplane design it just developed through a six-month R&D programme. 

Magpie emerged on the scene last year with the unveiling of its unique airborne aircraft towing system. That technology, which enables meaningful ranges with current batteries, formed the basis for a new concept electric aircraft targeted at regional air cargo. Today, as part of its acquisition by Ampaire, the companies have decided to open source this design through a freely available white paper.

The aircraft, named MP-1 Cargo, has been designed with efficiency, ease of type certification and future upgrades in mind. It features a large wingspan, an upgradeable battery architecture, cable controls rather than fly-by-wire systems and a total range of 300 nautical miles (550 km) with a 3,500 lbs (1.6t) payload capacity.

Magpie published a white paper that covers the market analysis, technical design and economic modelling for the MP-1, all of which are freely available for download. The white paper is a culmination of the half-year R&D study undertaken with input from stakeholders including airlines, OEMs and regional governments.

“We openly invite the community to build upon this work and/or use it to better understand the opportunities and challenges surrounding the future of electric aircraft,” Oliver Haas, head of Partnerships and Strategy, tells us.

The idea was born from discussions with cargo airlines on Magpie’s aerotowing technology. The question repeated through these discussions was ‘What are you going to tow?’ Haas says the lack of a suitable candidate became the genesis of the internal study.

There is a smorgasbord of awesome stuff happening in electric aviation,” he says. “There are a lot of concepts tackling cargo first, but a lot of them are new forms of aircraft like eVTOLs and autonomous drones. They serve new functions and will enable new capabilities in cargo. But if you look at trying to replace some of the existing activity happening in regional cargo, there are not many zero-emission platforms that stand to directly replace something like the Cessna Caravan.”

Second-hand Cessna Caravans, Beechcraft 99s and other similar aircraft make up the backbone of the regional air cargo industry, particularly in the US where they fly feeder services for major cargo operators on smaller-scale routes. The market in Europe is a little bit different with aircraft like ATRs doing much of the work. But the strategy on both continents is quite similar: small aircraft delivering air mail, cargo and essential air service from regional hubs to more rural locations. Most of these routes in the US are in the 200 nautical mile range, which makes them a prime use case for electrification. Regional air cargo also has lower utilisation than passenger-carrying services, which is beneficial in terms of alleviating pressure on turnaround times. But this is also a drawback with respect to return on investment, making it challenging for a regional cargo operator to buy new aircraft to replace their existing amortised fleets.

“Our design brief was to make the MP-1 as simple as possible from the perspective of cost and certification. That means we rely as much as possible on proven aircraft design principles, leaving electrification as the key wheel that we are reinventing. We also fundamentally designed around viable technology, without relying on future magic batteries or idealised aerodynamics,” says Haas.

The white paper uncovered challenges around bringing a pure-electric cargo aircraft like the MP-1 to market, including a green premium for buying the aircraft and a relatively small market size. The list price for the MP-1 is estimated at $6.5m at significant rates of production, which is considerably higher than the second-hand aircraft typically operating in regional cargo airlines. Combined with the low utilisation of cargo aircraft and relatively small target market size, the returns on investment for both the aircraft manufacturer and the airline/operator will be limited.

Magpie also discovered a misalignment between the best product market fit and the strongest incentives to drive an aircraft like the MP-1 into the market. The best product market fit is certainly the US – there are more than 500 similarly sized aircraft flying regional cargo missions. But in terms of incentives to go green, Europe is the best fit.

“European stakeholders we spoke to were really excited about the MP-1 because of stronger emissions regulations and environmental consciousness. But you’d have to rework some of the operating models to serve the market with a smaller aircraft like this.”

But Magpie says the challenges are not insurmountable. The white paper concludes with a series of short- and long-term recommendations for commercialising the MP-1. One insight surrounds the “power of the lessor”. The firm notes there are a number of leasing entities popping up – such as Avalon-e, MONTE and Rockton – that are specifically focused on facilitating finance for sustainable aircraft.

“We recognise there’s a really powerful partnership that can exist between a manufacturer, a lead set of customers, a lessor and investors. The lead customer guides the development of the aircraft with their operating expertise. The lessor provides a mechanism to help overcome the green premium for adopting a new technology. And that combination can provide a clear demand signal to support further investment and development of the aircraft.” says Haas.

“Long-term we are advocating for regulatory frameworks that could incentivise adoption for electric aircraft like the MP-1. Some of these things may sound rather boring, but they are critical to getting the technology off the ground. Of course, direct emissions regulations will create an environment where an aircraft like this becomes a really obvious choice. Tax credits, low-interest loans and subsidies for operators who are early adopters of next-generation platforms provide further incentives.”

So why did Magpie decide to open source the aircraft design and full unit economic model for the MP-1? The startup firmly believes that further progress in the field of zero-emission aviation will require deeper collaboration. Their white paper is written for aircraft manufacturers, policymakers, researchers and enthusiasts of electric aircraft to build upon and improve.

“We looked at this concept comprehensively from a variety of angles and concluded: technically feasible, economically challenging. But in a world that has a willingness to pay for emissions, this aircraft makes sense. It is a super pragmatic opportunity,” Haas explains. “So in this context, we looked at a few options in terms of what to do with the work. That is where we decided we were most excited about open sourcing this work because it had started as an R&D study.

“We are by no means implying that our work is perfect. Our models have estimations and assumptions, and we’re very clear about where those are. But we’re excited to give a piece of work back to the community that allows others to build on it. We’re excited to put materials out there that we would have benefitted from when we were starting out.”

Download and read the white paper here. See Magpie’s blog post announcing the white paper here.

Subscribe to our free newsletter

For more deep dives from SAF Investor, subscribe to our email newsletter.