Almost there, after 40 years
Reading time: 5 minutes
For a brief moment it looked like the oil crisis of the 1970s paved the way for electric aviation to emerge. In October 1973, the first ever electric aircraft took off in Austria. Managing to stay in the air for fourteen minutes.
But that was about it...
The eyes in aviation were focussed on newly developed aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and the Concorde. Even tough these were two revolutionary aircraft, they brought more people together in record breaking times than ever before, they weren't breaking any sustainability records.
While the popularity of these types of large jets is in decline, electric aircraft are on the the rise. Even tough the development of electric flying didn't progress for over 40 years, the technologies enabling the current developments in electric flying have. The skyrocketing popularity of consumer electronics helped to improve battery technology. The capacity increased, just as the charging speed and discharge rate. The development of electric cars created electric drivetrains that play a significant role in electric aircraft propulsion.
Compared to the other driver of RAM, digitization, electrification will be more difficult to implement on a larger scale. As mentioned in the previous issue, Xwing is testing their autonomous vision-based landing system and Superpilot system on a daily basis. It is used next to the conventional systems on their Cessna Caravans. This way the autonomous technology can incrementally find its way into fully certified everyday use.
You cannot add an electric engine or battery to an existing aircraft engine and execute commercial flights with it. A zero-emissions electric aircraft, whether on batteries or hydrogen, needs to completely replace the conventional, and proven, kerosine engine. You need to fully redesign the aircraft. Even with a hybrid one, like Heart Aerospace is building, the drivetrain needs to be rebuild from the ground up and be certified as such.
It's important to start small
That doesn't mean that we won't be seeing electric powered aircraft at our airports before the end of the decade. On the contrary, there are many promising initiatives on their way to become a commercially viable product. The most recent news on this topic comes from the Eviation Alice that made its first test flight last September. Eviation's goal for the aircraft is to be able to fly nine passengers across 460 kilometers.
The Pipistrel Velis Electro is already in commercial use. However, since its primary users are flight schools and not RAM-operators, I will not discuss this aircraft in this issue.
The important thing for setting up electric RAM-operations is to start small. It is no secret that the current batteries don't have the same energy density as kerosine. Meaning that battery-powered aircraft will be (significantly) heavier compared to a conventional powered aircraft with the same range and passenger capacity. And adding a lot of weight is not an option in aviation. So you have to limit your ambitions for the number of passengers or the range of the aircraft. And probably a bit of both.
It is possible to juggle with the capacity and range numbers to make your aircraft suitable for a specific market. The already mentioned Eviation Alice aims at carrying nine passengers with a range of 460 kilometers. The company ELECTRON puts more eggs in the range basket and is building a fully electric aircraft with a maximum capacity of three passengers but a range of 750 kilometers.
As entrepreneur you have to find the right business case, looking at location and population, while keeping these limitations in mind.
Across the water
Let's start by looking at requirements for a proper location. An area with lots of water and islands will be a good place to start. Ground transportation is usually limited in these areas and transportation by boat is slow.
A good example of this is the route network of Harbour Air, an airline that operates seaplanes across the coast of British Columbia. Their planes carry passengers, mail and cargo to several locations along the west coast of Canada and Seattle.
Harbour Air route network
You can see on the map that many of their routes are relatively short and cross water. Since there is no bridge or tunnel between Vancouver Island and the mainland, all transportation to and from the island is based on water or air transport. Making flying the obvious choice when speed is an important factor. Most of the routes are 200 kilometers or less, well within range of what electric aircraft will be capable this decade.
It is therefore no surprise that this airline is well on its way of becoming the world's first airline to operate scheduled fully electric flights. They operate several types of aircraft, ranging from Cessna Caravan's to De Havilland Twin Otters. In December 2019 their De Havilland eBeaver made its first fully electric test flight. The eBeaver is a 'regular' De Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver retrofitted with an electric engine. The engine is provided by MagniX, based in Everett, Washington. At the moment, Harbour Air tests the aircraft and waits for local regulators to certify the electric aircraft for commercial use.
Operating within a single market
A second way to make electric RAM-operations economically viable is by connecting places with a common dominant industry. A good example of this is connecting people working in finance between London and Belgium, France and the Netherlands. The several airports in and around London are the most populair destinations from Amsterdam when looking at the number of flights.
The distance between Amsterdam Airport and London City airport is about 330 kilometers, just as far as Paris is from London. City-pairs that can easily be connected by electric aircraft. Other relevant cities like Rotterdam and Antwerp are even closer to London. London can also be reached from Amsterdam or Paris by train. However, if that was a realistic alternative for most people, London wouldn't have been the most populair flight destination from Amsterdam.
Other examples of connecting cities with similar industries is connecting two of the most relevant ocean harbors of north western Europe: Rotterdam and Hamburg. Also creating city-pairs between oil-industry hotspots in Denmark (Esbjerg) and the south of Norway (Stavanger, Kristiansand) could be a relevant market to start with electric RAM-operations.
Only a small amount of passengers needed
The number of people wanting to fly between small towns of Esbjerg, Kristiansand and Stavanger is not that big. But that's ok. electric aircraft won't be able to carry large amount of passengers anyway. At least not in the near future. What is important when starting with this new type of travel is a stable flow of frequent flyers. People that need to travel to and from those airports on a regular basis while alternative modes of transportation don't suffice.
Being located at airports that serve communities that are depending on air travel (like islands) or have strong economic ties helps to find those frequent flyers. By serving such communities for 40 years now, Harbour Air shows that this is an economically viable business model.
Electric aircraft only being able to carry a small amount of passengers also has a downside, of course. It will make this type of flying initially more expensive, while the industry promises that electric RAM will be cheaper than current modes of flying. Efficient electric engines, cheap solar panel energy and low maintenance costs will make electric flying cheaper on the long run. We are just not there yet. First the development of the new aircraft needs to be paid for. Just like the training of the mechanics and the development of new charging infrastructure.
It is reasonable to expect that because of the higher costs, RAM will initially be used on similar routes as small business jets. Serving clients that are willing to pay a higher ticket price. Just as smooth and quick as they are used to, but now more sustainable than ever before. And as a person who has worked in business aviation, I can assure that the numbers that Eviation and Electron as focussing on are more than enough to cover a sufficient part of that market.
What I wrote about electrification and autonomous flying only states the possibilities now and in the near future. Fortunately, the enabling technologies are developing rapidly. Only a few years ago the first certified electric aircraft, the two-seater Pipistrel Velis Electro with a range of 100 kilometer, became available. Last September, the Eviation Alice, being able to carry nine passengers and a pilot, already made its first test flight.
The same goes for the developments in the digitization of aviation by increasing safety and the accessibility of airports. All contributing to the foundation of electric Regional Air Mobility.
Now we have to wait for one of these technologies to mature enough to launch the first RAM-operations. And that could come sooner than you think. NASA states in their report “Regional Air Mobility – Leveraging Our National Investments to Energize the American Travel Experience” that “one of the most powerful aspects of the vision is that multiple technologies do not need to mature simultaneously in order for RAM to advance.”
The goal of developing these technologies is to connect more communities in a more sustainable way. Electrification and digitization will need to mature some more for electric RAM to become an every day reality. Especially delivering on the promise that electrification will make flying cheaper will take some time. However, the developments we see in electric cars make us hopeful for the future. Making all signs indicate that we will see the first electric RAM-operations deploy before this decade is over.