How realistic is to think that electric aviation will represent the turning point that will soon make us live in the future (in which we may be able to drive flying cars, for example) that so far we have only been able to imagine by reading sci-fi novels? Well, we are not even close to such a crazy idea which is present in our collective imagination, but maybe in twenty years, we may choose to travel on small planes instead of trains for short trips not too far from home on weekends. Indeed, many companies are currently planning and concretely creating networks of regional electric air mobility in order to meet the needs of commuters.
However, the most challenging mission of electric aviation has nothing to do with commuters, because it mostly concerns long-haul flights. In fact, many observers raise doubts about the battery charging system and, notably, about how much time the battery will endure to complete such a long distance journey. Nevertheless, in the next lines, it will be well explained why this is not a consistent issue.
So, as today is the International Civil Aviation Day, it is interesting to illustrate thethe current electric aviation state of play, to try to give an answer to a lot of questions anyone can have about it and to sum up what kind of hurdles it is currently facing.
Is it worth betting on the future of electric aviation?
In order to answer this question we have to ask ourselves something else: Have you ever wondered why many startups and corporations are manufacturing electric aircraft?
The answer isn't too hard to guess. A report published by the European Parliament stated that the percentage of pollution produced by aviation represents 3,5% of the total. Such data in conjunction with the European Green Deal, whose objective is to stop greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, were like a call to arms for lots of players in aviation (at least 25 worldwide, without counting the lesser known projects).
That is why betting on electric aviation definitely means betting on the future of general aviation,even more after the debates about COP27, where many world leaders (who are supposed to “save the planet” from pollution) arrived there with a private jet (although a functioning airport was located near the pavilions), a fact that not unexpectedly raised a stink.
Pros and cons
To better explain why betting on electric aviation can be a step towards the future, we can talk about its pros and cons.
There are many other benefits from electric aviation that are not directly related to greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, the cost of an electric motor is lower than the cost of a conventional one, according to the Scientific American magazine that interviewed Cape Air's CEO Dan Wolf, who bought 75 Alice, an all-electric commuter aircraft produced by Eviation. The newspaper states: "Electric motors generally have longer life spans than the hydrocarbon-fueled engines in his current aircraft; they need an overhaul at 20 hours versus 000 ". This means that operating costs are lower compared to a standard aircraft.
Then, as a pros of electric aviation we can also add the decrease of the noise pollution produced by general aviation. According to different research, this particular type of pollution has many harmful effects on public health (sleep disturbance, community annoyance and many more, as the report Aviation Noise Impacts: State of the Sciencestates). Electric aircraft are able to sensibly mitigate this issue. Air & Space Mag, which followed NASA’s project to build an electric aircraft, stated in an article . " In the bargain, the noise drops from 85 decibels to around 70, which is just a little louder than your vacuum cleaner ".
What can appear as a cons is the battery charging issue. Indeed, many online reports about what electric aviation may become in the near future are realistically focusing their attention on short-haul flights. However, as Scientific American magazinestated, "approximately half of all flights globally are fewer than 800 kilometers, which is expected to be within the range of battery-powered electric aircraft by 2025”. Therefore, this is not a concrete issue for electric aviation.
However, a disadvantage is represented by the certifications. Indeed, allowing an electric plane to fly may not be so simple. As Business Insider stated in an article: The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration, ed) amended its rules in 2016 to allow electric propulsion systems in airplanes built for up to 19 passengers. The real problem, though, is that certification, even with these amendments, takes years, so companies have gotten creative. They've started to retrofit old planes to get certified quicker ". Using retrofit technology to get around this issue might seem like a probable solution, but it just bypasses the question. Manufacturing an electric aircraft from scratch is the only way to have an aircraft optimized for electric features and a 100% original end-product. Technically speaking, the most important advantages in that sense regard the improvements of performance (fast, efficiency), aerodynamics and in avoiding the thermal runaway, a recurring risk in electric vehicles. For this reason, although many manufacturers have decided to use retrofit technology, we, at Pie Aeronefs, are developing a 100% original and proprietary aircraft.
Electric aviation state of play
All the benefits we listed are only the tip of the iceberg compared to all the changes electric aviation could make in the public transport sector, in the long run.
Certainly, in the near future, technological progress may play its role in changing aviation and making it electric. Of course, the multitude of electric aviation companies could accelerate this transition. Already right now there are some players who have already sold their aircraft and this represents a clear sign that the general aviation market is opened to new business prospects and that there are lots of consumers willing to buy it.
We, at Pie Aeronefs, are evidently working hard to give a future to electric aviation.