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Chapman Freeborn

The Electric Airliner: Pipe dream or Reality?

It seems aircraft manufacturers have toyed with all-electric power for decades, with a plethora of forgotten prototypes and concepts in existence since the early 1970’s. Over four decades since we saw the first full-size electric manned aircraft, the industry is yet to see something truly practically and commercially viable. Of course, pioneers of all-electric power have always been subject to inherent technological and financial restrictions, but many other transport industries have either already arrived at, or are very close to a commercially viable all-electric product.

As an example, Elon Musk-led Tesla Motors are shortly set to release an affordable electric car that will compete with traditional automobiles in terms of both practicality and performance. The $30,000 automobile is set to revolutionize its industry, solving many of the problems that its predecessors have faced. Tesla have also patented battery innovations that are set to have huge implications on the nature of electric travel in the future.

Whilst there is clearly a world of difference between automobiles and aircraft, manufacturers of both have had some very common problems to solve.

So how far away are we from the “Tesla” of the aircraft world? How long will it be before we are travelling on hybrid or even fully electric airliners?

Where did it all start?

1973 saw the first man-carrying, full sized aircraft, the Militky MB-E1. Its 12 minute long flight time was an inherent side effect of battery technology at the time, but the project proved it was possible.

Throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, numerous manned aircraft were developed around solar power, rather than fuel cell, technology. Whilst huge developments were made, the inherent constraints of solar power as a sole power source became evident.

1998 saw the release of the Air Energy AE-1, an ultra-light plane powered by Ni-Cad batteries and in 1999 the Lange Aviation LF20 followed, capable of climbing an impressive 5500-feet in one charge.

Advances in battery technology resulted in many ultra-lights, light sport aircraft and launched gliders going into production from 2000-2010, but still nothing existed that would match up to even light aircraft of traditional propulsion in terms of passenger numbers, payload or flight range.

Things changed, however, when in 2010 Cessna announced plans to develop an electrically powered version of the Cessna 172, a hugely versatile 4-seater that has seen more models produced than any other aircraft. With test flights completed in 2012, the aircraft is sure to offer something totally new to the market when it goes on sale.

Where are we now?

The game has been changed even further by the aircraft giant, Airbus Group. In April 2014, their prototype E-Fan demonstrator made a successful maiden flight. The 2-seater aircraft replaces traditional propeller systems with new jet-like fan engines that can propel the aircraft at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour. The prototype is currently undergoing extensive test flights with the view to the proposed E-Fan 2.0 entering production.

Conventionally known for manufacturing jet airliners, the Airbus Group are touting the aircraft as their first step toward the development of hybrid-electric powered regional jets. The company claim such aircraft could be with us in the next 15-20 years, slashing fuel consumption by 70-80% and vastly reducing emissions and noise pollution.

Comparatively, whilst competitor Boeing did take on an “electrical power” research contract from NASA in 2012, they have been relatively quiet since and reports indicate that their progress has been mainly theoretical so far.

Airbus Group’s proposal of an industrial facility close to Bordeaux, where commercial versions of the E-Fan will go into production, shows that at least for now, the company are dedicated to remaining at the forefront of electric aircraft technology.

When it comes to all-electric aircraft, there are still substantial hurdles to overcome. Whether it’s possible for an all-electric airliner to exist in the future is entirely reliant on the development and improvement of battery technology and in-flight charging systems.

In the meantime, hybrid airliners still have a huge amount to offer in terms of vastly reducing environmental impact and running costs, and are seemingly well within our grasp.

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Artists Impression of the Airbus E-Fan 4.0 © Airbus Group

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Airbus E-Fan F-WATT  © Airbus Group / M. Metcalfe

Header Image: Artists Impression of the Airbus E-Fan 4.0 © Airbus Group

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