Travel Technology: The world’s first certified aircraft powered by electricity has flown into the history books in Switzerland.
The two-seater Pipistrel Velis Electro is used mainly for basic pilot training. It completed its maiden flight over a village near Fribourg, in western Switzerland.
The cruising speed reportedly is 90 knots (166 km/h) and maximum autonomy about 50 minutes between charges.
The Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) made the announcement.
Certification is part of a cooperation program between FOCA and other aviation authorities, as well as with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Slovenian manufacturer Pipistrel. A few months before the record flight, EASA approved its electric motor.
In the three years leading to the certification process, FOCA and the others have defined the conditions for the operation, maintenance, and pilot and personnel training for the plug-in EV plane, which already has given aviation authorities experience in low-emission types of aircraft propulsion.
Now FOCA and EASA have a foundation for future certifications of low-emission and environmentally friendly aircraft that reduce air as well as noise pollution. Up until now, only combustion engines were regulated for small aircraft.
Another Record-Setting Electric Airplane
The Pipistrel Velis Electro is not the first, the largest or the only plug-in electric airplane.
That honor goes to the Magnix e-Caravan.
A white-and-red Cessna battery-powered Grand Caravan plane took off from Moses Lake, Washington in June, flying at more than 100 mph to an altitude of around 2,500 feet, It made a few turns and then landed after 28 minutes.
Known as the eCaravan, the Cessna is powered by a 750-horsepower electric motor, supplied with energy by more than 2,000 pounds of lithium-ion batteries.
Weighing in at over 4 tons, with a wingspan of over 50 feet and room for nine passengers, it’s the largest electric plane ever to have flown.
Electric airplanes are seen as the future of cleaner, climate-friendly air travel, but their use is limited without significant advances in battery technology.
Over the last 10-20 years, improvements in battery technology have doubled, even tripled driving range for electric vehicles from 100 to 300 miles. But that land-based battery power is not enough for extended distances of electric flight.
Still, the benefits of electric aviation are already real.
Roei Ganzarski, CEO of the Seattle-based electric propulsion firm magniX told NBC News that electric aircraft can be more efficient than fossil-fuel propeller planes over distances of up to 1,000 miles, which make up more than half of all passenger flights in the world today.
Airlines today use jets or turboprops for those flights, he noted, “but that’s a waste of fuel, it’s a waste of emissions, and it’s not good for the environment. Why not do it electrically, which is also cheaper?” Ganzarski said.
Short-range electronic flights also could provide a lifeline for small regional airports which are being abandoned by the large airlines. Delta announced recently it is cutting service to 30 smaller airports in the USA and Canada.
So it also could be a lifeline for cargo, including for the US Postal Service (USPS), replacing the Turboprop Caravan planes used around the world to carry passengers and haul cargo,
Ganzarski’s company is is developing the eCaravan with the flight testing company AeroTEC, and has several more months of further testing, both aloft and on the ground, before the Federal Aviation Administration can approve the design, perhaps late in 2021.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Electric Airplanes
Proponents of electric airplanes will tell you they are quieter, safer and cheaper to run than fossil fuel planes.
The half-hour Moses Lake eCaravan flight, for example, used just $6 of electricity instead of $300 of kerosene, and the gasoline engine of its smaller chase plane was twice as loud.
Electric motors are also lighter than fossil fuel engines, don’t need as much maintenance and last much longer before they need to be replaced, Ganzarski said
And as long as the electricity is generated cleanly, electric aircraft create no atmospheric carbon emissions.
The key disadvantage of electric aircraft is limited range. Today’s batteries are at least 30 times heavier than an energy-equivalent volume of kerosene, so electric aircraft can fly only shorter distances than their fossil-based siblings.
The eCaravan currently has a range of about 100 miles, while a turboprop Cessna Caravan with the same weight of kerosene can fly about 1,500 miles.
The Future of Electric Flight
Better batteries are on the way.
Materials scientist Shirley Meng of the University of California, San Diego is part of the Battery 500 Consortium working on new battery designs.
Commercial lithium-ion batteries can store about 250 watt-hours of electricity per kilogram, she said, but new designs could double that in a few years – although it depends on how quickly factories can be equipped to make them.
“We don’t have mass production capabilities, but on the research front, right now we are hitting 400 [watt-hours]. We’re not at 500 yet,” Meng said.
Electric aircraft can also take advantage of battery technologies pioneered by electric cars.
Tesla and GM are working on so-called “million-mile” batteries based on chemistries that can increase their lifetimes and drive down their prices.
These new battery technologies would make their way to electric aircraft.
As with land-based vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells also shows promise. Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, among others, have been marketing fuel cell powered vehicles for more than a decade.
And the promise of solar-powered airplanes is a whole other story.
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