Revolution.Aero Uplift: Electric flight will become ‘as cheap as driving’ (with zero emissions)



A plane called Alice

A plane called Alice

Electric flight will become as cheap as driving and promises to reshape transportation systems not only in the US but worldwide. That’s the bold prediction of Kevin Noertker, co-founder & CEO of electric aircraft pioneer Ampaire, now part of the Surf Air Mobility group.

Talking to Revolution.Aero after Ampaire’s hybrid electric six-seat Cessna 377 Skymaster completed Scotland’s first powered low-carbon aircraft flight, Noertker brimmed with enthusiasm about the prospects for electric and hybrid electric flight.

“Ultimately, with further technology improvements, flying will be as cheap as driving, and with expanded routes and increased flight frequency, sustainable, electric flight has the potential to fundamentally change how people move,” he says.

The key to unlocking that potential is Surf Air’s plan to create a network of new, commercially viable direct flights between regional destinations. The intention is to develop Ampaire’s hybrid electric powertrain technology to allow existing aircraft engines to be upgraded with a hybrid powertrain that uses both aviation fuel and electricity from lithium-ion batteries. Surf Air estimates more than 60,000 aircraft worldwide are suitable for such upgrades and 15,000 of them are hangered in the US. Making the upgrades will save about 25% in direct operating cost savings plus thousands of tons of carbon emissions.

Ampaire’s Susan Ying, senior vice president for Global Operations, explains: “Hybrid-electric aircraft achieve two objectives: reducing harmful emissions and reducing cost of operations to the point that routes such as Wick-Kirkwall [the arrival and departure points of the Scottish flight] become viable for regional carriers. They can also make current routes more profitable while lowering fares and strengthening connectivity.”

A key factor underpinning Ampaire’s reasoning is US population distribution and its under used regional airports. Up to 90% of the US population is 30 minutes away from a regional airport, while only 60% are the same distance from commercial airports. “Though they sit closer to the majority of consumers in the US, regional airports are underused due to high operating costs and low flight volume,” says Noertker. “Hybrid-electric powertrains reduce fuel and maintenance costs, directly translating to lower cost to flyers. By improving profitability on existing routes, operators will have the ability to add thousands of new flights per day on existing routes and between new, untapped routes.”

Ampaire’s hybrid electric upgrades, starting with smaller aircraft on flights under 500 miles, will sustainably connect underserved communities with affordable travel options, greater mobility and economic opportunities never before realised, he claims.

It is an argument that has won powerful supporters. In July, Surf Air agreed an exclusive deal with Textron Aviation to purchase up to 150 Cessna Grand Caravan EX single-engine turboprops – marking the first time a major OEM has agreed a partnership of this nature, according to Noertker.

In May of 2020, magniX started flying the largest all-electric commercial aircraft, the eCaravan, a retrofitted Cessna 208B Grand Caravan. Courtesy: magniX

In May of 2020, magniX started flying the largest all-electric commercial aircraft, the eCaravan, a retrofitted Cessna 208B Grand Caravan. Courtesy: magniX

Electric engine manufacturer magniX and Eviation – both focusing on electrifying middle-mile aviation over ranges of 50 to 1,000 miles – predict savings in operating costs of up to 80%. Roei Ganzarski, magniX CEO and executive chairman of Eviation, told Revolution.Aero: “We expect to see dramatic decreases of hourly operating costs from fuel savings, reduced maintenance costs and a longer service life with electric aircraft. The current expected drops are anywhere between 40-80% reduction in hourly operating costs.”

Then, there are the environmental benefits and noise reduction. Ganzarski highlights the opportunity to eliminate the 4% (and rising) of global greenhouse emissions created by aircraft. “With a clean and more efficient way to fly, electric aviation emits zero emissions. A completely clean aviation system is the only way we can progress as a society.”

Half of all US airline flights are less than 500 miles in range but only 1.6% of all 50 – 500 mile-trips in the US are done by air, says Ganzarski. “Utilising electric aircraft for these flights can significantly reduce carbon emissions from all trips of 50 – 500 miles, meaning a major reduction in the environmental impact of short and middle mile travel.”

The momentum around electric flight is gathering pace. In December of 2019, magniX started flying the world’s first commercial all electric aircraft, the eBeaver, a retrofitted five-passenger DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver with Harbour Air. In May of 2020, magniX started flying the largest all-electric commercial aircraft, the eCaravan, a retrofitted Cessna 208B Grand Caravan. Later this year, Eviation plans to fly the world’s first all-electric commuter aircraft, Alice, for the first time. Alice will be powered by two of magniX’s magni650 electric propulsion units. Motor certification is expected in 2023, while Eviation anticipates achieving certification of Alice in 2024.

Electrical power units from magniX have been selected by Faradair a UK-based company developing an 18-passenger aircraft. Universal Hydrogen also chose the company for its 40-passenger Dash-8 retrofit to a hydrogen-fuel cell-based electric aircraft.

“By 2025 we can expect to see a few hundred electric aircraft flying around North America,” Ganzarski told us. “These will be a mix of small-sized retrofitted as well as new design aircraft. By 2030, we should expect to see around 1,000 of these aircraft flying short routes throughout the United States.”

Equally optimistic is Ivo Boscarol, founder & president of electric trainer manufacturer Pipistrel Group, based in Ajdovščina, central Slovenia. Pipistrel won certification of its Velis Electro in June 2020.

He told us: “I am convinced that within the next five years, Pipistrel will be offering a two-seat electric aircraft in Part-23 category, type-certified for day and night VFR [Visual Flight Rules], IFR [Instrument Flight Rules]-ready, with the range of more than 600 km, flying time close to four hours and with charging time of less than 20 minutes. Such an aircraft will be a good substitute for piston engine aircraft for more than 90% of tasks.”