Aviation's Electric Future

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For today’s blog, I was about to write that hardly a week goes by that we don’t report on some new electric aircraft initiative. Then I was suddenly seized by the impulse to, you know, actually check to see if that statement is correct.

As is so often true of generalities, it’s not correct. Actually, we publish something on electric aircraft about every three days. During the preceding 30 days, nine of the 72 news stories we’ve published had to do with drones or electric aircraft. That’s more than 12 percent and it’s closer to 15 percent if you include all the related drone stories that aren’t specifically about electric aircraft.

Our reporting has revealed that some big players are getting involved in electric aviation—Boeing, Airbus, General Electric, Siemens, to name a few. This, coupled with the sheer volume of stories, understandably gives the impression that critical mass is upon us and viable electric aircraft will arrive “sooner than you think” as the converted acolytes like to say. I’ll leave it to you to decide if sooner is next year or the next decade or just sooner than later.

For this blog, I’ll offer this: All this coverage portends the leading edge of a revolution in flight, the dimensions are which aren’t discernible at the moment. Based on conversations with and emails from readers, I’m convinced that many are too bogged down in doubts about battery capacity and unnatural fears of drone swarming to understand the shape shifting that’s on the aviation horizon due to a fundamental leap in the ease of learning to fly. Never mind rules and regulations, aeronautical decision making, airspace, cost, or the rest of it, just how the barriers to learn to levitate off the surface are, potentially, about to be knocked down.

Take a look at this video. I’ll wait. The takeaway is this. When the guy is throwing water balloons, bricks and radios at the drone, what’s the operator doing? Nothing. Thanks to GPS-augmented flight stability, it just occupies the same point in space, returning to that point if disturbed. No operator input required in the same way I can park my DJI Phantom at 50 feet while I fish around for batteries for the camera.

If you question if this is scalable, here’s your answer. This appeared in our news feed last week. To be sure, it’s overhyped as a flying car, a concept the industry and the media just can’t seem to let go of and this particular iteration of it may be a dead end. Its endurance and range are too limited to be of much practical use, but that misses the point. The technological underpinnings are conceptually identical to the small drones: stabilized autoflight that the pilot merely displaces to go where he wants to go. One lever for throttle, one for lateral movement or the like. I don’t know specifically how the BlackFly is configured, but that's got to be close. It’s not that it has envelope protection as an option, but that it’s based on envelope protection.

So can anyone fly such a thing? Probably not, but vastly more people can fly it than can or would be willing to master a fixed-wing airplane or conventional helicopter. This particular aircraft is intended as an ultralight, so no certificate or medical required. The ultralight weight limit stunts payload and thus capability and appeal so, at least for the BlackFly, this is likely to limit it to the FAR 103-intended recreational use.

Advancing battery technology will improve endurance, but the commercial viability of such a thing lies in the nexus between price and perceived value. Will enough buyers materialize to spend, say, $150,000, for a novelty vehicle to hop out of their (rural) yard and spin around the fields and pastures to constitute a viable business? No one can answer this yet, although we know precious few are willing to spend that much for a light sport airplane, requiring as it does a certificate, an airport, probably a hangar and significant training. It matters not a whit if the BlackFly itself represents the breakthrough; the technology that animates it already does. There will be others of its ilk. The BlackFly, by the way, is scheduled to appear at AirVenture.

Our flood of electric aircraft coverage has revealed another trend: a necessary impatience with the glacial pace of battery improvement. Although the urban mobility crowd, spearheaded by Uber Elevate, is clinging to pure electric designs, we’re seeing more hybrid proposals, which I see as an open admission that electric propulsion, for all its benefits, isn’t keeping up with what designers imagine to be the use cases. But even at that, hybrids have their limits, too. The SureFly VTOL, which will also be at AirVenture, is a hybrid, but with only a 400-pound useful load and a 70-mile range. As range extension goes, that doesn’t leave me gasping for breath.

And just at Farnborough this week, Rolls-Royce revealed its design for a six-propulsor electric hybrid with a 435-mile range and payload for four or five passengers. It uses a turbine engine to drive a generator with batteries for surge power needed at takeoff. Rolls says it will fly in the early 2020s. If their numbers are realistic, that strikes me as intercity urban mobility sort of range, provided the noise the thing makes doesn’t crump the idea before it gets off the ground. Rolls says its using low noise technology of some kind and that will be a must.

So will demonstrating to regulators that a single motor/prop failure is remote enough not to require exceptional mitigation. But why wouldn’t this be doable? Thousands of single-rotor helicopters have been certified and although a helo can autorotate, the rotor has to actually be there to do it. Rare is the accident when the rotor spins off into space. Why should it be any different with rotors powered by electricity? Or that are smaller?

As we prep for the trek to AirVenture, 2018 marks the first year when there’s likely to be significant numbers of electric aircraft on display, based on what we've heard so far. While these are still in the demo phase, with the exception of Pipistrel’s Alpha Electro, it’s shortsighted to believe that will always be the case. If it were, we would still be traveling cross country looking up the buttholes of oxen.