eRAM: Find the gap
It costs about €40m per km ($64.96m per mile) to build high-speed electric railways. That means for about the same cost as 5km of high-speed rail, you could prepare a small country, the Netherlands for example, for the arrival of electric regional aviation. The cost for solar panels, smart grid, stationary batteries, chargers and some local adjustments on the apron or terminal for Dutch airports will likely not exceed €200m. Words by Yves Le Marquand.
So why hasn’t any major rail organisation globally got involved? It is possible they see electric regional air mobility (eRAM) as competition. Both serve similar distances and would compete for the same passengers. It could also be that rail firms simply do not believe the technology exists, whereas rail is a centuries-old principle. Whatever the reason may be, until now, rail companies, and other transport modalities have been missing an opportunity.
Revolution.Aero can report exclusively Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the country’s principal passenger operator, has become the first rail operator “to recognise the relevance of sustainable Regional Air Mobility”. NS has made the decision to become a partner in the Netherlands-based, Power Up-initiative.
eRAM pioneers at the initiative recognise the desirability of coordinating sustainable mobility options, such as railways and electric cars, to find the “optimum offer” with each modality focusing on those traveller flows for which it is best suited.
Gerben Broekema, aviation strategist supporting the Power Up-initiative, tells Revolution.Aero: “Many look upon electric aviation as being of very limited value in decarbonising aviation. While this is true, they fail to see the potential of eRAM to improve regional connectivity with cost-efficient and sustainable aircraft technology and its potential contribution to reducing emissions and possibly energy consumption from electric cars and to avoiding costly new land-based infrastructure.
“We are working with stakeholders across modalities to develop a shared view on how different sustainable transport technologies can complement each other. Having such a shared view on the relevance of eRAM in the future mobility system will boost the confidence of policy makers, investors and of course OEMs and operators to intensify and accelerate their efforts to make eRAM happen” says Broekema.
Broekema, who has been working nearly full-time on eRAM for the past few years, says the re-introduction of (very) short haul flying and possible even domestic flights in the Netherlands is a very sensitive topic. “We need a broad group of stakeholders to subscribe to the environmental benefits and to the expectation that small electric aircraft will hardly be heard outside the airport perimeter. Power Up also aims to test and showcase new electric demonstrator aircraft as they will become operational ahead of certification working together closely with OEMs and operators.”
The Power Up initiative is intent on, not only working with OEMs and operators making eRAM a viable product, but coordinating with other modalities, such as rail firms, to see where to best to position eRAM in the overall mobility system. “This is something that I think few are considering yet,” says Broekema.
One head of sustainability at a regional airline tells Revolution.Aero inter-modality interchanges are going to be ever more important in an efficient, modern transport network, such as frictionless interchanges between rail, air and road.
Aerospace engineer and product lead, at Xwing, Kevin Antcliff believes cross-modality collaboration is crucial to the customer experience.
Antcliff tells Revolution.Aero: “It requires a very close collaboration between air transportation and ground transportation to get you from where you are to where you want to be. This customer-centric view will likely drive the booking and scheduling of both the eRAM flight and any other last-mile service providers to be directly connected.”
At last month’s Sustainable Aviation Futures Congress, Amsterdam, Broekema says 95% of the talks and conversations were about “decarbonisation”. “[However] Everybody says why are you focused on small aircraft? Well, large aircraft are on my to-do list, but the total emissions from cars, in the 50km-500km range are likely considerably more than the total emissions of the entire aviation industry. We need to focus on reducing carbon as a whole, rather than any one specific sector.”
For Antcliff the US, with its 5,000-plus public-use and 14,000-plus private airports, provides the most market potential for eRAM globally. “[This network of airports] provides a distributed, under-utilised infrastructure that can very quickly be ramped up to support this expanding market. This, however, is not saying that there are not significant opportunities outside of the US. Much of the developed world has significant airport infrastructure that provides significant opportunity for increased utilisation.”
Barriers to large-scale eRAM operations
A recent NASA study found that a 40% reduction in operating cost compared with today’s regional aircraft pushes the market to a large expansion in small regional fights serving far more airports, says Antcliff.
But what are biggest barriers to large-scale eRAM operations? There are three, according to Antcliff: certification, infrastructure and last-mile solutions.
Certification of both autonomous operations and electric propulsion systems will be a key enabler for this market, says Antcliff. “The progress the aviation industry is able to achieve in working through the development of standards and developing the right testing requirements will be a key piece of offering these capabilities to the public.”
Luckily, in terms of charging infrastructure, there is strong precedent from automobiles on what to do (and what not to do) as we begin to develop the necessary infrastructure. There is also no need to develop additional runways or airport locations due to the numerous landing strips around the world, says Antcliff.
Many of the smaller airfields require much less infrastructure. This means shorter and fewer runways, less complex approach and landing aids, less parking and less FAA interaction. In some cases, this could be a seaplane base with a natural runway. All of which will reduce the time and cost of regional flights.
“The ability for eRAM to function as a seamless service that connects them from their origin to their destination will also be critical,” adds Antcliff. Today in most urban/suburban areas, there are a variety of options to get from your front door to the local airport. “However, in many more rural areas, the development of last-mile solutions that connect you from the airport to the customer’s final destination will be a critical piece in achieving large-scale operations,” he says.
There is room for cooperation in last-mile log
istics too. That trip from your home to the airport or vice-versa. Power Up is in talks with car leasing companies which specialise in electric vehicles, explains Broekema. There is also the potential for discussions with eVTOL developers too.
Antcliff concludes: “All of these three challenges require collaboration and partnership to accelerate. This requires industry, government and academic collaboration that provides the right insight and experience to bring about the necessary advancements required in each of these areas.”
The Östersund and Røros areas of central Sweden and Norway are parts of the world where industry, government and academia are collaborating today on the future of RAM and electric aviation as whole. The Green Flyway is located there, which is a three-year project financed by Interreg Sweden-Norway with partners including Swedavia, Avinor, Heart Aerospace and the EU. The project has created an international test arena for electric passenger aircraft and drones and autonomous drones, offering test permits and renewable charging infrastructure.
Senior adviser, Green Flyway, and deputy chairman, Swedish Aeronautical Society, Hans Dunder tells Revolution.Aero: “We began with a feasibility study between the Swedish and Norwegian sides and realised the timing is good, eRAM is a necessity, we have all the facilities, the airspace, the topography, extreme weather conditions. We realised, much like the car industry which does much of its testing in northern Sweden, we wanted to become that for the air.”
For every 300 aircraft startups only 30 will be fixed-wing, the rest are eVTOLs, adds Dunder. “That is another reason why we decided to set up Green Fly Way.” The project has been demonstrating with Pipistrel’s Velis Electro and Pure Flight’s Phoenix –it also hopes to complete demo flights with VoltAero’s Cassio. That will involve the Cassio flying from its base in the south of France to Östersund to show that hydrid aircraft can be effective over longer distances.
Aircraft are one piece of the eRAM ecosystem, Green Flyway is also analysing the airport infrastructure required to support electric flight. The project is powered by 100% sustainable energy, sourced from hydro or wind generated electricity. Energy from the local area is now exported elsewhere because there is a production excess, according to Dunder. Actually all 10 Swedavia airports in Sweden are fossil fuel free in terms of day-to-day operations such as ground transport.
“We have found using existing electrical infrastructure the air force installed, we can bring one megawatt of power to the apron [ramp]. Although each of the aircraft makers we work with has a slightly different charring system they can all contract to a 400 volt AC power outlet. Which are 65, 35 or 25 amps,” says Dunder. “But we know when it comes to Heart Aerospace we have to be able to provide 1.2 megawatts of capacity. We know we can deliver that, but we have not invested in these types of chargers because this is not the standard yet. It is coming. Heart will use the same kind of charging infrastructure as trucks do. Liquid-cooled charging cables and so on.”
Lastly, the project is trying to build a picture as to how an eRAM route network will operate. Taking the Heart Aerospace ES-19 as an example, which has 19 seats and a safe range of 400km, it comes down to short, themed routes similar to those found in north Norway, Sweden and Finland. “We have a system today which means everything has to go through the hubs: Oslo, Stockholm and Helsinki to fly between each other,” says Dunder.
eRAM would make it possible to connect all three countries with a route from Trondheim, Norway (where Rolls-Royce’s centre for the development of its electric turbine is underway) to östersund, Sweden to Sundsvall and on to Vaasa in Finland. “This would also connect the new green industry that we have in the region such as battery manufacturers. We have enormous investments up here which is absolutely fantastic and largely to do with the renewable energy produced in the area. So, we have looked upon it, we have measured it, we have compared it with other means of transport and said that ‘okay, this is a game-changer’.”
The only issue, says Dunder, is the general public has not yet realised the potential opportunities eRAM could open up. “Perspectives are very much based on how things have been, the reason why this is really a game-changer has not yet sunk in. This part of the project also, just to describe what eRAM is and raise awareness about it.”
Training the future
Pilots are an essential part of a transition to widespread eRAM operations. At Skellefteå Airport in northeastern Sweden the Green Flight Academy, established in 2021, now offers electric pilot training. The academy can teach around 30% of a first officer programme solely in electric aircraft, the rest is flown in simulator or diesel-powered aircraft.
“A big contributing reason for us starting operations in Skellefteå is the energy transformation going on here,” Johan Norberg, head of Training, Green Flight Academy tells Revolution.Aero. “As electric airplanes develop we will swap out our fleet to increase the hours on electric airplanes. This might be through installing new batteries on the airplanes we have or buying new models that are coming out. We are simply into the business of reinventing flight training and finding new ways of training pilots in a sustainable way with the requirements of tomorrow.”
Dunder sums up the case for eRAM. “eVTOLs are trying to solve the problem of congestion, our problem is non-congestion – connecting people in sparsely populated areas.” Evidence points towards electrifying eRAM being a more cost effective and therefore higher flight volume solution compared with regional aircraft of today. It also shows that cross-modality cooperation, where possible, is an effective way of catalysing eRAM’s growth. But how can this be visualised? One solution comes in the form of an app launched by German electric aircraft developer, Vaeridion. The app calculates journey time and energy consumption, whether in a car, train or aircraft, and then shows how much time and energy could be saved if a direct regional service was available. For example, a journey from Split, Croatia to Salerno, Italy would be 87% faster and 95% cleaner by air than it is by car.
When it comes to thinking about the potential of eRAM, you have to understand two things, says Broekema. “First, the pattern of how we travel today is not the same as how we want to travel; it is the result of current [aircraft] technology. Second, the eRAM travel experience will be a much different way-of-flying with very efficient airport processes making it much less of a hassle than flying is perceived today.”