Electric Planes Take Off – Scientific American

CLIMATE WIRE | US airline Textron Inc. announced last week that it would “accelerate” its development of an electric fleet, starting with the purchase of a Slovenian electric aircraft company.

Textron paid $235 million for Pipistrel, which produced the world’s first electric-powered aircraft to be internationally certified as safe for passenger flight. Pipistrel will be part of a new division focused on the development of battery and fuel cell electric aircraft.

Textron CEO Scott Donnelly predicted the merger will help make his company “a world leader in sustainable aircraft for a wide range of missions.” Textron produces Cessna and Beechcraft aircraft, as well as Bell helicopters.

The move is the latest in a growing global race to develop electric aircraft. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that 170 projects worldwide focus on such planes, double the number underway in 2018.

A report from NREL – one of the laboratories serving the Department of Energy – predicts that the market could experience “strong growth from 2028”, when the first 50-70 seat electric planes are expected to appear.

“It’s exciting to see all the different approaches being pursued,” said Jesse Bennett, engineer and lead author of the NREL report. The projects range from small planes used to train new pilots and transport cargo to slightly larger planes that could fly passengers from rural areas and small towns to major US airports, he said.

The US is home to 5,050 smaller airports that could serve as a niche for electric planes, which could be used to quickly move passengers to the top 30 airports serving major US cities.

This could require US electric grids to power electric charging stations at small airports. NASA is also currently investigating whether small airports can have enough vacant area for solar farms to refuel electric planes.

A NASA study released last year noted that wider use of electric planes would save fuel. Half to two-thirds of the energy of conventional jet or piston aircraft “comes straight out the tailpipe”, he noted, while an electric motor uses 90% of the energy it draws batteries to spin the propellers.

Textron is one of many aircraft companies pioneering a variety of cost-effective ways to use electric aircraft.

Boeing Co. is working with General Electric Aviation and NASA on modifying a conventional aircraft with electric turboprops to carry between 30 and 36 passengers.

Boeing is also investing $450 million in an electric air taxi, a small plane that can take off and land like a helicopter. It is being developed by Wisk, a company based in New Zealand and San Francisco, which sees a market in transporting passengers to larger “emission-free” airports.

Wisk plans to develop passenger and cargo aircraft that can be flown autonomously, guided by pilots on the ground. In a January report, the company described its autonomous “eVTOL,” or electric vertical take-off and landing air taxi, as a way for passengers to “skip traffic and get to their destination faster.”

Airbus, another global aircraft manufacturer, is working in France to develop “EcoPulse”, a six-engine aircraft using higher-voltage lithium-ion batteries.

From hang gliders to bats

By acquiring Pipistrel, Textron inherits the star power of its founder, Ivo Boscarol.

Boscarol entered the aviation industry through his hobby: hang-gliding. In the 1980s, a number of enthusiasts were trying to make light kite-like aircraft fly faster and farther, but Boscarol, who ran a small photography business, beat them all, starting with small electric motors and a tricycle-shaped fuselage.

Flying powered aircraft without a license was illegal in Slovenia, but Boscarol smuggled one in from Italy and began improving it, testing versions in the protective darkness of early evening. Spectators dubbed his contraption “pipistrel”, derived from the Italian word for bat.

“My philosophy is simple: set your goals too high, or you’re dead,” Boscarol said. Airplane and Pilot magazine in 2016. By then, Pipistrel had tried thousands of electric aircraft variants and found success in several models.

In 2011, Pipistrel won a $1.1 million prize in a NASA-sponsored “green flight challenge” using lithium-ion polymer batteries. In 2020 the company introduced a two-seater with an enclosed cockpit called Velis Electro. It is the first and, to date, only electric aircraft to receive full certification from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

According to Rob Scholl, who leads Textron’s new division to manufacture electric planes, Boscarol will be a consultant to help Velis Electro break into the first emerging business for electric planes, which will be to train commercial pilots.

“He will accompany us as Chairman Emeritus and will be a very valuable resource for us with customers and regulators,” Scholl said.

Pilot training is the key to success, Scholl added.

“We will have to get used to flying in these planes,” he said. “What a lot of people underestimate is that commercial aviation has an incredibly safe track record. We need to continue to work with the public to be comfortable with these new aircraft.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News brings essential news to energy and environment professionals.