Electrifying the Industry

June 17, 2020
While designing the optimal electric propulsion system is a very complex task, the machinery itself, once built, is fairly simple.

Aviation gets a bad rap for its noise pollution and carbon footprint, especially now with millennials and the like very aware and focused on the environment and Mother Earth. Electric propulsion addresses both of these concerns and can offer aviation businesses cost savings throughout the lifespan of an aircraft — making electric planes an attractive option for those who take to the skies.

“I've been a pilot for 43 years and it is so exciting for me to see this as a reality which can address, I would say, the downside of our business,” explained Dan Wolf, CEO of Cape Air, which is set to start flying an all-electric airplane for its charter locations on the East Coast, Midwest, Montana and the Caribbean in just a few short years. The plane, currently penned “Alice”, from Eviation is a nine-passenger, sleek, all-electric commuter aircraft that made its debut at the 2019 Paris Air Show.

“Everybody needs to keep in mind that right now, aviation only accounts for about 2% of the greenhouse gases,” Wolf mentioned. “I think airplanes are visible because we're flying over, and people see them all the time, but it is a relatively small percent of the carbon footprint that humanity is creating right now. I think we also have to make sure we're looking at the other 98% at the same time.”

Out of the more than 10,000 FAA-approved airports in the United States, airlines only use about 600 of them, says Roei Ganzarski, CEO magniX,an electric motor manufacturer for electric aircraft. “Why?” he questioned. “Because the rest are too small to fill the big planes airlines make money with.” Ganzarski says electric airplanes will be 40%-70% lower in cost to operate per flight hour. That means operators will be able to fly more planes into smaller airports closer to your home or destination. Which means less crowded airports, less waiting, less hassle. A shorter and more convenient door-to-door experience. And it will all be done with no harmful CO2 emissions. “We believe that 15 years from now, all flights less than a thousand miles in range, will be completely electric,” explained Ganzarski.

Last December, magniX launched the successful flight of the world’s first commercial electric airplane with Harbour Air, North America’s largest seaplane airline. Additionally, over the past few months, the company has been magnifying a Cessna Grand Caravan (208B) with its partners at AeroTEC and expect to start flying that aircraft shortly (depending on progress with the Covid-19 situation). magniX is also what powers up Eviation’s Alice.

Bye Aerospace is focusing on the pilot training market with its two-seat all-electric eFlyer 2. Several notable flight schools across the globe are on its customer list with paid customer deposits. The four-seat all-electric eFlyer 4 is targeted for the air taxi market, and the customer list with paid deposits continues to grow, as well. Bye Aerospace currently has more than 300 paid purchase deposits for eFlyer 2s and eFlyer 4s.

“One of my most memorable experiences was in 2005, when I got to ride in an early prototype of a Tesla roadster,” explained George E. Bye, CEO of Bye Aerospace. “Once the test driver pushed his foot down on the accelerator, I was instantaneously propelled back in my seat, thinking, ‘This feels like I’m back flying a jet. We have got to apply electric propulsion to aviation.’ In 2007, I launched Bye Aerospace, convinced the time had finally come for the general aviation industry to seriously consider and begin to incorporate the benefits of clean, electric propulsion and a more-efficient aircraft design.”  

Save the Planet, Save a Buck

Lower noise levels, reduced emissions, decreased dependence on fossil fuels, improved performance and reduced operating costs are some of the biggest advantages of electric propulsion aircraft — all of which are attractive features for aviation businesses and for our planet. Going electric doesn’t only save the planet, but it can save a buck, too.

As for Bye Aerospace’s eFlyer, the company projects the plane will eliminate millions of tons of CO2 every year as older, conventional airplanes are replaced. Additionally, soon after launching the eFlyer project, scientists from the U.S. National Park Service conducted noise testing with Bye Aerospace’s all-electric demonstrator aircraft. According to Kurt Fristrup, branch chief — Science and Engineering, with the National Park Service, “The difference in noise level (of the overflight) was on the order of 30 dB, so the [electric aircraft] radiates roughly 1/000th the noise of the conventional aircraft.”

According to Bye, the eFlyer’s operating costs are one-fifth of traditional aircraft. “Bye Aerospace projects these savings could ultimately reduce airline pilot program cost, with a potential large student pilot tuition savings and increased accessibility to student pilot training,” explained Bye. “These operational cost savings have similar translations for the air-taxi market.”

Time will be saved with less time between maintenance checks and between overhauls. Cape Air is currently overhauling its traditional aircraft engines roughly every 2,000 hours. The belief with Eviation’s Alice is that the electric motors that will be powering their airplanes will have an overhaul limit of around 20,000 hours.

Powering the planes are much cheaper since the cost of electricity is substantially less than fossil fuel. “We're paying about $4 a gallon for gasoline and we pay about 15 cents a kilowatt hour, so you can do the math,” said Wolf. “We're paying about a buck for the equivalent kilowatt hours as a gallon of gasoline.”

Cape Air says that overhaul time, operating costs to power the engines and less maintenance is what makes electric aircraft so attractive, even if the initial cost of the plane is more than those traditionally-powered. “Even though the capital cost of buying the airplane will be a little bit higher, we think we'll make up for that in the operating costs of the airplane over time,” commented Wolf. “We're very excited by that. And, because it should be a much cheaper product, it will allow us to go into communities that currently are not economically feasible to serve by air. Once you dramatically reduce the operating costs, it's a game changer.”

Wolf says that the plan is to make back the initial cost of the electric planes in three to five years. “It really becomes a no brainer,” he noted. “The airplane should have at least a 15-year life. So, in the long run, over the life of the airplane, there's a huge payback using electricity.”

More Power

With so many benefits backing the push to go electric, it is hard to imagine there are any big hurdles blocking the way. Finding a battery that packs enough power to fly a plane is one of them.

“Battery density is not where we would like to see it,” explained Ganzarski. “While it is good for ultra-short flights of 100 miles on a retrofit aircraft and more than 500 miles on a new design aircraft like the Alice, there is plenty of untapped potential in batteries. Now that the first commercial aircraft has flown all-electric, battery companies are starting to work more diligently on aerospace ready battery and power solutions.”

Another limitation is how much energy can you actually carry on board in the form of battery storage. “Battery technology I think is still evolving, which is exciting, and we'll have to keep an eye on that,” explained Wolf.  

Cape Air’s concern is making sure that airports they serve have the infrastructure in place to do rapid charges on the batteries. Doing this is going to entail making sure that Cape Air can land in places where it can plug the airplane in and get it charged back up for the next flight. “I think the battery technology and the charging infrastructure are two of the issues that we're working on in addition to maintenance and training programs.”

The Cape Air business model would be that the airplane starts the day at a 100% charge. Then, the average flight will be somewhere around 45 minutes and then it would be plugged in for about 30 to 40 minutes between the first flight and the second flight. “You'll recapture probably 80% to 90% of what you used,” noted Wolf. “Even though you start the day with a 100%, on the second flight you might start that flight at 95%, the third flight you might start at 85% or 90%. So, in the course of the day, you'll plug in while the airplane is turning between flights, but you don't need to get back to 100%.” Cape Air’s typical airplane does eight legs a day, and it may finish the day at a 40% to 50% charge. Then, overnight it can get back up to 100%. “It’s not like we're doing three, four or five hour flights,” Wolf explained. “It works for us because all we need to do is plug in and recapture some of what was used, and then just go through the day slowly depleting the battery but partially recharging it between every flight.”

Maintaining Electric

While designing the optimal electric propulsion system is a very complex task, the machinery itself, once built, is fairly simple — only one moving part in the entire motor. No friction, so no lubrication; lower operating temperatures, so less vibration. Additionally, there are no oil changes, spark plugs, magnetos, compression checks, or 900-plus moving parts to inspect. “This all means significantly less service, less maintenance and no need for expensive, lengthy things like engine overhauls,” explained Ganzarski.

“Following certification and sufficient supporting data, we are confident the FAA and EASA will accept time before overhaul requirements in the 10,000 hour range,” noted Bye. “Today, typical 100-hour inspections take 16-22 hours to complete, depending on the type of single engine aircraft. We expect the eFlyer inspection to take six to eight hours to complete. The airframe inspection will look very similar to traditional aircraft: open the panels and inspect wheels, breaks, avionics, etc. The difference is the motor and batteries, which requires visual and electronic data inspection. 

Bye Aerospace is working with its partners to develop the appropriate training for maintenance personnel, but without a doubt, the most important thing to learn is safety. Since the eFlyer is an all-electric aircraft, safety around the high-voltage system will be the most important thing an A&P will learn. Along with implementing safety precautions into the design and maintenance program of the high-voltage system, Bye Aerospace is also defining training requirements specific to the unique system. “It is imperative that we work with our training and maintenance partners to establish best practices and training documents that will aid in the rapid training of current A&P and fleet mechanics.”

As with any new product, technical training will be needed to prepare someone to maintain these engines. Such training would be provided by the FAA CFR Part 147 aviation maintenance technician schools, manufacturers’ maintenance instructions and industry guidance and best practices. “General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) has been a strong advocate for the growth, advancement and continued education of maintenance technicians to ensure the future workforce is ready for these exciting new technologies,” noted Andrew Castro, director of communications, GAMA. “GAMA supported legislation that was introduced in both the House and Senate that aims at modernize long, outdated maintenance training regulations and better aids the education community in supporting these efforts.” The association also offered feedback to the FAA regarding the update of the airmen certification standards to revise the powerplant theory and maintenance sections, as well as the ground operations and servicing sections to accommodate hybrid and electric propulsion aircraft. 

GAMA has been working with industry standards bodies to develop an initial framework of standards and guidance to support the ground servicing, maintenance and emergency procedures of electric/hybrid products. It also supported funding authorized in the 2018 FAA Reauthorization bill, which established a program to provide grants to help develop future pilots and maintenance and technical workers. 

“We expect that the existing FAA licensing and certification structure will accommodate hybrid and electric aircraft, but the curriculum requirements will likely need to be updated to ensure the FAA CFR Part 65 sections, covering general privileges and limitations, as well as the airframe and powerplant ratings system, will include any differences these new technologies may present,” explained Castro.

Is the Future ALL Electric?

The transition from conventional to electric aviation is unquestionably underway. Bye Aerospace says it will go from electric airplanes with two seats to four, then from one electric motor to two or more. “Drag costs a lot in terms of energy, but as technology matures, the opportunities for larger and faster electric airplanes will be realized,” noted Bye. “I see the aviation market maturing over many years as more electric is integrated into our experience as a culture, as an industry.”

Batteries will need to achieve much higher energy density to meet this challenge. However, just like the electric car industry demonstrated over the past decade, electric aviation will continue to evolve as technology matures.