Hybrid electric aircraft benefiting from a ‘covid kickstart’



Hybrid electric aircraft are benefiting from a ‘Covid kick-start’, but challenges in the development of batteries are creating headwinds for the technology, according to speakers at the British Business & General Aviation Association (BBGA) conference.

“Covid was the real catalyst [for electric aircraft],” Neil Cloughley, Faradair, founder and CEO told a forum on hybrid electric aircraft. “Around the likes of Atlanta [airport], O’Hare, JFK and Heathrow, for the first time in decades, if you lived within a five-mile radius, the skies were empty.” That was a big catalyst for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), sustainability, environmental social and governance (ESG) and focus on mobility, he said.

Cloughley’s solution, under development at Faradair is a hybrid-electric concept aircraft designed to remedy three key problems hindering the growth of regional flight. Those are noise, operation costs and emissions. A clean sheet design, the 57ft-wing span BEHA aircraft is designed to convert form an 18-passenger seat configuration to cargo in 25 minutes. The carbon composite aircraft, featuring a triple box wing, should be flying by 2025, with a target date for certification some time in 2027.

Cost is a crucial factor, said Cloughley. Such technology offered the potential to deliver big cuts in the cost of air transport – for example 200-mile flights lasting up to 45 minutes at a cost of $33 (£25 each way). “If you could do that, you’d fill every seat on the airplane but you can’t because of the cost of operation, asset costs, fuel, maintenance, insurance and everything that goes with it,” he said. The BEHA project, alongside many other hybrid electric solutions, aims to slash the costs of air transport while also cutting noise and carbon emissions.

Another project is Ampaire’s plan to retrofit the venerable Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander to make it a hybrid electric aircraft. This will involve running the main two engines on Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) and fitting two extra propellors, powered by electric motors onto the Islander’s wings. “Because it is a retrofit rather than a whole new aircraft, we will be able to go down the supplemental type certification route rather than the whole aircraft route [saving considerable time and cost], said John Rees, Ampaire’s chief engineer, 2Zero Project. The first test flights are scheduled for Summer 2024. Ampaire flew the first hybrid-electric test platform – the Electric Eel, based on the Cessna 337 Skymaster – in 2019. The aircraft uses both electric and traditional powertrains in a tandem configuration. The company has also developed hybrid-electric conversions for the Cessna Caravan single-engine turboprop utility aircraft.

Such technologies offered the potential to re-enthuse young people back into aviation, said Edwin Brenninkmeyer, Oriens Aviation, founder and CEO. As the exclusive distributor in the British Isles for Pilatus and Tecnam aircraft, Brenninkmeyer shared his perspective on how both manufacturers viewed the hybrid electric sector.

Pilatus was watching developments with interested but deterred by relatively low battery power available, he said. With a range sweet spot of 1,500 nautical miles and above, the OEM needed to see significant range increases for batteries before being tempted into the market. Hydrogen power was possibly the only power source likely to match the range of conventional fuel but involved storage problems.

Light aircraft OEM Tecnam was partnering with Rolls-Royce to develop the P-Volt electric aircraft. In partnership with Cape Air, Tecnam is exploring the potential to launch a short-flight service between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. One drawback is that battery costs are likely to remain high for the next 10 years at about $1,312 (€1,200) per kilowatt hour. That compares with a battery cost for cars of about $132 (€130).

Another challenge is that battery life is measured in months not years for the very high utilisation operators (For private operators with lower utilisation, battery life will of course be much longer), according to Tecnam. The residual value of the battery is about 10% of its new price. “The challenge is how to recycle these batteries,” said Brenninkmeyer. “Tecnam believes they can be considered for wind farms.”

Darrel Swanson, Swanson Aviation Consultancy and NASA adviser highlighted the administration’s research revealing the need for Advance Air Mobility solutions. Up to 5,000 US airports were completely underserved in terms of commercial traffic, according to the research. Further research in Europe, to which Swanson contributed, revealed the mismatch between flight distance and aircraft type. Nearly half (47%) or regional flights were about 200 nm but carriers often operated aircraft with range of up to 2,000 nm operating over much shorter sectors. “So, we have the market [for advanced air mobility] that is built and ready to go,” said Swanson. “If you can get the cost down to the right level – through lower capital, maintenance and operating costs, you can fill them [regional aircraft] and that’s exactly what our demand modelling worked out.”

Meanwhile, Brenninkmeyer, from Oriens Aviation, sounded a note of caution on the need to separate the hype about hybrid electric aviation from its true potential. He told the conference on Thursday March 9th at Luton, north of London: “There is a lot of hype about this industry, and we have to be careful because this is the future. I’m worried that if the hype bubble bursts, then electric aviation could die with it.”

Meanwhile, nearly 500 business aircraft linked to Russia could be impacted by sanctions ordered by the EU, US and UK after the invasion of Ukraine, according to research organisation WINGX. Up to about one quarter of the 469 aircraft identified by the company are on the  Russian register, with others registered in jurisdictions such as Austria, Malta, and San Marino, said WINGX MD Richard Koe.