Electric Airplanes Start To Take Off (#GotBitcoin?)
Retrofitting existing planes draws interest from startups and big manufacturers, including Airbus. Electric Airplanes Start To Take Off (#GotBitcoin?)
A five-passenger airplane took flight near Los Angeles recently with one important modification: an electric motor.
The nearly 50-year-old plane, retrofitted by California-based startup Ampaire, still used a normal combustion engine to spin a propeller in its nose for the test flight. But engineers replaced a second engine with the electric motor, which powered a propeller in the back of the plane.
“It’s kind of like a plug-in hybrid car,” said Kevin Noertker, the co-founder and chief executive of Ampaire, which used some parts initially designed for automobiles to modify the plane. “We are really riding the coattails of ground electric vehicles here.”
Aerospace giants and startups are developing electric aircraft that can navigate autonomously and take off and land vertically, and potentially shuttle thousands of commuters around cities and suburbs in coming decades. Uber Technologies Inc. even plans to launch a transportation service using electric, vertical-takeoff aircraft in 2023.
But other entrepreneurs believe retrofitting existing airplanes could help electric aviation take flight even sooner. Ampaire said its planes could be ready for customers by the end of 2021.
Ampaire and others are betting that regulators will approve modified planes more quickly than new electric aircraft, and that retrofitted planes will still offer significant savings on fuel and maintenance for small airlines and charter companies.
The first retrofitted aircraft, which could be either hybrid or fully electric, will likely carry fewer than 20 passengers and fly between 100 and 200 miles on a single charge. That is enough to connect small airports in regions where traffic or natural obstacles make driving time-consuming, Mr. Noertker said.
Fitting electrical components on an existing airframe is a challenge, and other industry players aren’t sure that focusing on retrofits is a winning strategy. Planes retrofitted with heavy batteries and generators could quickly become obsolete with the introduction of newly designed, fully electric aircraft, which would be expected to be more efficient and have greater range.
“An aircraft designed around conventional propulsion typically struggles to realize the benefits of electric or hybrid-electric power,” said Eric Bartsch, CEO of electric-aviation startup VerdeGo Aero, which is based in Daytona Beach, Fla. “It was a relatively easy decision to focus on newly designed aircraft.”
Approvals for design changes still can take many years, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Retrofits will “undergo a thorough evaluation where FAA will determine what new safety standards might be needed to address the new technology,” it said.
Still, investors, including the venture-capital arm of JetBlue Airways Corp. , have ponied up some $250 million for electric-aviation startups since 2017, according to recent data from PitchBook. Ampaire has raised money from venture-capital sources, government grants and the aviation industry, including engine manufacturer Continental Aerospace Technologies, Mr. Noertker said.
Dean Donovan, managing director at aviation-and-travel investment firm DiamondStream Partners, said regulatory hurdles for retrofits aren’t insurmountable. His firm is considering investing in some retrofit concepts, he said.
For a retrofit, “you already know the airframe works,” Mr. Donovan said. “All you’re really doing is replacing the propulsion system.”
Ampaire said it has received FAA approval to fly its plane for experimental purposes. It plans to take a retrofitted aircraft to Hawaii later this year for more tests, and will fly the plane between Maui’s main airport in Kahului and a smaller airport in Hana, at the eastern end of the island.
The 15-minute flight will follow a route similar to one operated by local carrier Mokulele Airlines, which is interested in retrofitting its fleet of nine-passenger airplanes for electric power, said Mokulele’s president, Rob McKinney.
Ampaire’s Mr. Noertker estimates the hybrid plane, originally a Cessna Skymaster, would use 55% less fuel than an unmodified plane, cost up to 50% less to maintain and offer a range of 200 miles. Wright Electric, another venture-capital-backed startup in California, wants to retrofit a nine-passenger plane with a hybrid engine that Chief Executive Jeff Engler said would be suitable for skydiving flights. He estimates fuel savings of up to 20%.
Big manufacturers are also studying retrofits. Airbus SE said it would replace one of the four turbofans on a short-haul jetliner with an electric motor, and plans to test-fly it by 2021. The aim is to demonstrate new technology, and Airbus doesn’t plan to commercially produce that particular model.
Some small airlines, however, are already retrofitting their fleets. In Vancouver, Harbour Air Seaplanes took one of its aircraft out of storage to install a 750-horsepower electric motor developed by magniX, which moved its headquarters to the Seattle area from Australia about a year ago. The first test flight is planned for November.
“In the next five years, you’re going to see a lot more retrofits than you do new aircraft,” said Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX, which is backed by Singapore-based conglomerate Clermont Group. “There are a lot of operators that need to fly short routes that could benefit from a retrofit.”
Greg McDougall, Harbour Air’s chief executive and founder, said electric motors have fewer moving parts and produce less heat than the turbine engines his airline currently uses, making them cheaper to maintain. Batteries in the near future should also provide sufficient range for the airline, given that the average flight is just under half an hour.
“I’m a businessman, I’m not just a dreamer,” said Mr. McDougall, whose airline flies to coastal locations around Vancouver. “If I can see economic viability in what we’re doing, then why wouldn’t I do that?”
KLM Makes First Regular Flight With Sustainable Synthetic Fuel
Air France-KLM’s Dutch arm operated a passenger flight from Amsterdam to Madrid that the carrier says was the first in the world to use sustainably derived synthetic aviation fuel.
The Boeing Co. 737-800 narrow-body plane carried 500 liters of the fuel produced by Royal Dutch Shell Plc, equating to more than 5% of the total requirement for the trip, KLM said in a statement Monday.
While flights partly powered by plant-derived biofuels have become commonplace as aviation seeks to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, fully synthetic propellants have taken longer to develop. KLM said the Madrid flight, which took place on Jan. 22, was groundbreaking in combining carbon capture with solar and wind power to produce a fully sustainable kerosene substitute.
“The introduction of sustainable aviation fuel is very important to us,” KLM Chief Executive Officer Pieter Elbers said in a webinar on SAF, where news of the flight was disclosed. “The captain informed the passengers that this was a big step for the industry. They didn’t notice any difference.”
KLM also operated the first commercial service to use biofuel in 2011, powered by a 50:50 blend of kerosene and used cooking oil. Availability since then has “been really a challenge,” so that it currently meets less than 1% of the airline’s needs, Elbers said.
Synthetic jet fuel is derived from carbon dioxide and water and could help fill the gap, though the electrolysis used to secure hydrogen for the process eats up large amounts of power, making its industrialization a major challenge.
Fuel for the KLM flight was produced in a Shell lab using carbon dioxide captured from Europe’s biggest oil refinery in Pernis, near Rotterdam, and from a cattle farm in the northern Netherlands.
Marjan van Loon, Shell’s president for the Netherlands, said the aim now is to turn synthetic fuel from “something that is technically possible to something that is economically viable,” reducing costs and accelerating production.
Synthetics and biofuels are seen by airlines as vital to cutting emissions before hydrogen and electric power make flying truly carbon free, something that’s unlikely to be viable until well into next decade for even short-haul airliners.
UPS Bets On Electric Aircraft To Get Packages To The Hinterlands
United Parcel Service Inc. is buying 10 small electric-powered aircraft that take off like helicopters and fly like planes, aiming to reduce its costs from contracting with small air freighters to reach far-flung areas.
The first delivery of the ALIA-250 from Stone Point Capital-backed Beta Technologies is expected in 2024, UPS said in a statement Wednesday, and the courier has an option to acquire as many as 150. While the vehicles will be piloted, UPS already envisions drone versions that could fly on their own and would be less costly to operate.
For all the hype surrounding potential passenger-carrying air taxis, UPS’s foray into electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft signals that freight delivery is likely to be one of the first industries to take advantage of the technology. FedEx Corp. is experimenting with pilotless Cessna 208 cargo aircraft and Slovenia-based Pipistrel, which makes light propeller planes, expects to start delivering cargo drones in two years.
Still, there are big hurdles for eVTOLs, even for freight, including a limited range and heavy batteries. The business case for the next-generation technology is in its early stages, spurring caution among analysts such as Richard Aboulafia.
February’s $3.8 billion merger of air-taxi startup Archer Aviation with a blank-check company backed by investment banker Ken Moelis and United Airlines Holdings Inc., is a red flag that the eVTOL market is too frothy, said Aboulafia, an aerospace consultant for Teal Group.
Investment pouring into the industry reminds him of the early 2000s, when startups rushed to develop so-called personal jets. That industry dissolved with the 2008 financial crisis and all the investment turned to dust, Aboulafia said.
“There’s now the same combination of lots of cash looking for a home and a high degree of techno-utopia,” he said.
Beta’s aircraft has four rotors on top and a propeller in the back. The company says it can travel 250 nautical miles (290 miles, 460 kilometers) on a charge and can tote as much as 1,400 pounds (635 kilograms) of cargo. That will limit the vehicle’s use since the typical small freighter UPS uses can carry about 3,500 pounds and has a range of roughly 1,200 nautical miles.
While UPS didn’t disclose the price, Beta’s ALIA-250 lists for $4 million each, though large purchases bring a discount, said Kyle Clark, chief executive officer of the South Burlington, Vermont-based manufacturer.
Clark, a plane and helicopter pilot, estimated that the operating cost of an eVTOL is about half that of a small cargo plane, mostly because of fuel and maintenance savings.
It costs about $380,000 to overhaul a Cessna 208 engine, which is needed after about 3,000 flight hours. Overhauling the ALIA-250’s electric motors is expected to cost a third less and wouldn’t be necessary until 10,000 hours, he said in an interview.
UPS could also save by reducing the need for trucks and — at some point — pilots.
Juan Perez, chief information and engineering officer at the Atlanta-based courier, said the aircraft will be nimble enough to land at a sorting center’s parking lot, allowing the courier to avoid using small air-freight contractors and trucks to get packages from its main hubs to facilities in remote areas, such as North Dakota.
“It will allow us to bypass a lot of the handoffs that take place today with using the typical small airplanes,” Perez said in an interview.
UPS expects to use the eVTOL in more populated areas as the aircraft’s safety is established. Perez envisions flying packages in bulk, for example, to downtown Atlanta from the city’s airport, skirting metropolitan area traffic.
If the aircraft can be operated as a drone, it promises to be even more cost-effective. Autonomous flights would be on routes currently served by contractors, so they wouldn’t affect UPS’s union pilots, who fly large cargo jets, Perez said.
United And Mesa To Buy Electric Planes For Short Trips
The deal for 200 electric aircraft developed by Sweden’s Heart Aerospace is the latest bet on new technology to curb emissions.
United Airlines Holdings Inc. UAL -4.19% and a regional airline partner are hoping to use a new electric plane to revitalize short-haul flying.
United’s venture fund and Mesa Air Group Inc. MESA -2.34% are investing in Heart Aerospace, a Swedish company developing a 19-seat electric aircraft. Tuesday’s deal is the latest in a series of bets on new aircraft concepts yet to be tested but that United said could help it reduce carbon emissions.
Each airline has agreed to order 100 of the planes, once they have been built, as long as the final product meets the airlines’ specifications.
United and Mesa have previously announced plans to invest in Archer Aviation, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that is developing an electric flying taxi, and to purchase as many as 200 of those aircraft. United has also announced plans to buy 15 new supersonic jetliners being developed by Boom Technology Inc.
None of these new aircraft have flown yet, and it will be years before any of them carry passengers. The companies said they expect the new plane, known as the ES-19, to begin service by 2026.
The plane has a range of 250 miles. United and Mesa envision using it on short trips, such as Modesto, Calif., to San Francisco, or Purdue University Airport in West Lafayette, Ind., to Chicago O’Hare. United said there are over 100 routes in its network where the ES-19 could operate.
Mesa Chief Executive Jonathan Ornstein said the aircraft will be cheaper to operate than jet fuel-powered planes and could breathe new life into small markets that are too expensive to fly to now. The 19-seat turboprop planes Mesa once flew to small cities such as Farmington, N.M., have been phased out in recent decades, leaving many communities without air service.
Airlines were hobbled last year by the coronavirus pandemic, losing billions of dollars and relying on government aid to continue paying workers. Carriers including United have said that curbing emissions is becoming a more urgent priority, as travel starts to recover.
Airline executives have said they believe many consumers have become more cognizant of the environmental costs of flying. Commercial aviation accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.
There were signs in Europe before the pandemic that a growing “flight shame” movement had started to take hold, damping demand for air travel. And some large corporations are also looking at scaling back business travel, as they grapple with their own emissions targets.
Planes that fly longer distances need more energy than current batteries can provide. Eventually, advances in battery technologies could mean that electric planes could fly farther, said Michael Leskinen, who heads the venture fund United launched last month to invest in nascent aviation technologies.
“If we wait for a 737-sized electric aircraft, we’re going to be waiting for a while,” he said. “This gives us a seat at the table.”
Mr. Leskinen said United has been vetting Heart for nearly a year after Mr. Ornstein introduced the companies. One selling point was that Heart’s aircraft is larger than other electric aircraft being developed, he said.
Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a venture fund started by Bill Gates and other business leaders, is also investing in Heart, the companies announced Tuesday. Altogether, Heart raised $35 million in this round of funding, Chief Executive Anders Forslund said in an interview.
Mr. Forslund, an engineer by training, started Heart in 2018 when aviation officials in neighboring Norway said they wanted to electrify all domestic flights by 2040. The aircraft uses the same types of batteries as in electric cars, and last year Heart demonstrated its new electric motor and propulsion system, Mr. Forslund said. Aside from that, the aircraft relies largely on existing technology, Mr. Forslund said.
“We should never underestimate how hard it is to build an aircraft,” he said. But “the novelty is only in the electric propulsion system. We’ve built that, we’ve demonstrated that.”