ALTERNATIVE ENERGY: Electric planes take flight, part 2 | Opinion
Around the world, there is a realization that our space on Earth is shrinking and our traffic jams are getting worse like a spring allergy. So get into technology. Cargo – human and otherwise – will reach new heights with a likely soft landing. Electric air travel is coming and when it does, it will be here to stay. But when will it take off?
The biggest problem to solve is security. The FAA has not yet approved an electric aircraft for commercial use. Battery energy density is the focus of safety. Because loft time and distance depend on this high energy density to be both practical and safe, the holy grail of energy density must be achieved. In addition, the three objectives of future electric transport are flight safety (i.e. air traffic control, vertiports, etc.), flight costs and reduction of noise pollution.
Future air transport will have several unique environmental features. They will leave smaller footprints than conventional flights via reduced infrastructure called “vertiports”. Veriports are the space to land on, which can be virtually any flat surface. No need for runways, towers or even airports.
So this month, we’ll focus on three aspects of electric transportation: air cargo, air taxi, and air enjoyment.
Hybrid Aviation Vehicles – aka HAV – of England has made an interesting contribution to the transport of people and goods, being the first to come out with its Airlander and now Airlander 10, its ship affectionately nicknamed “The Flying Buttocks”.
It’s a hybrid because it’s a helium-filled airship powered by electric motors. HAV claims faster travel time, quieter operation, one-tenth the equivalent carbon emission of similar carbon-based air travel and passenger comfort and the benefits of eVTOL. As you may recall from the Part 1 column on this topic, eVTOL stands for “Electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing”. A recent crash prompted a design overhaul for the Airlander, which is expected to be operational by 2024. www.hybridairvehicles.com to learn more.
Amazon has an interesting concept. A video of a proposed airship shows the mothership with hundreds of miniature drones coming from the belly of the ship, as if giving birth. These departing mini-drones will make their local deliveries and then return to the standby mothership.
A small Vermont startup called Beta is hedging its bets on its Alia entry, a cleverly designed eVTOL. So far, it looks – in my ever-humble opinion – that it will be the first to gain FAA approval for commercial cargo transport and a follow-up as the first in human transport.
My bias towards the Alia is that Beta follows the Wright brothers’ way of birding and modeled the arctic tern from nature. The evolution of the arctic tern is a wonderful tribute to the evolution of flight. The observation of former hockey player Kyle Clark, owner of Beta, is the arctic tern’s ability to maintain extremely long flight patterns that allow it to fly approximately 1.5 million miles in its lifetime and at clips of 300 miles a day. To confirm my humble opinion on the future success of Alia, UPS has already purchased 10 and plans to purchase 140 more. Beta has aspirations for air taxis, but is currently focused on freight.
To drive or not to drive, that is the question!
Lilium – One of the coolest eVTOLs (again in this writer’s humble opinion) is the German eVTOL named Lilium. It is a 36-engine winged eVTOL jet. By 2026, they hope to have achieved EASA (European FAA) compliance and the jump overseas to achieve US FAA compliance. Lilium plans to reduce the existing compact of 36 motors to 30, a measure aimed at reducing weight while increasing the power-to-weight ratio. Its style is only surpassed by its superior engineering strength. Lilium is also partnering with ABB, a Swiss high-tech automation company, to provide electric charging stations.
Lilium is a piloted jet. Current capacity is one pilot and six passengers, with some cargo space. By 2027, Lilium plans to increase its passenger capacity to 16. It is ready for city-to-city “hops” targeting the US East Coast.
Whisk — Wisk is working on a fully autonomous passenger eVTOL, the company’s sixth-generation eVTOL. The company believes unmanned flight is much safer and will be the future of congested airspace. Passengers will be able to talk to “pilots on the ground” monitoring their flight to manage the fear that could be linked to this new phenomenon.
Exchange — Ehang is China’s entry into the eVTOL arena. It is an autonomous single-passenger intra-city eVTOL. The Chinese are currently mass-producing this aircraft, a very functional but noisy aircraft. The cost is the advantage over its competitors, being about a third of the cost of other eVTOLs. This unit could be a sleeper in the eVTOL market. It will be interesting to see how they fare with the FAA and EASA.
The makers of eVTOL are looking at the market that serves the tourist and recreational flight crowd.
The author likes the Swedish Jetson, who offers to pilot everyone in 30 minutes. To order your Jetson, a deposit of $22,000 is required, then a final payment of $70,000 is due when your Jetson ONE is ready to ship from the factory. The Jetson ONE comes in a partially assembled state, where you complete the build. No special tools are required. If you receive your Jetson at lunch, you will fly before dinner. That’s what this manufacturer says. Good flight !
One thing is clear: one of these products will soon be approved for use in airspace by the FAA or EASA…then another…then another. This brings us to the issue of air traffic control followed by charging station issues. At some point these aircraft will have to have their maintenance locations where will they be housed. There is no doubt that the energy density will continue to increase, as will the decrease in material weight to make the super light eVTOL of the future.
Do we just build these marvels of technology and release them and see what happens? Of course not. There must be a worldwide effort to manage these systems so that they are absolutely secure. Otherwise, it will be the future of air transport, perhaps of all transport.
James Bobreski of Penn Yan has been a process control engineer in power generation for 43 years. He is also the author of “Alternate Energy and Climate Change in the Age of Trump”, available at Longs Bookstore and on Amazon.co.uk.