Rolls-Royce Holdings is joining Airbus and Siemens in their quest to develop a 100-seater hybrid electric aircraft, giving the UK engine maker a seat at the table of a potential promising aviation technology.
Rolls is tasked with helping develop a 2 megawatt electric drive for the aircraft, according to people with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified. A formal accord with Rolls could be announced as soon as this week, they say.
Step by step, Siemens and Airbus are moving closer toward their goal of producing a single-aisle plane with a 20 to 40MW electric drive. Siemens already demonstrated smaller aircraft with 60 kilowatt drive systems at air shows this year. The two companies initially set a goal to make a two-seater electric aircraft, dubbed the e-fan, that would have been used as a pilot trainer and tour-operator.
Meanwhile, a Boeing-backed start-up plans to put a hybrid-electric aircraft into commercial service within five years.
Zunum Aero’s 12-seat plane will carry battery packs and a small fuel reserve for a back-up engine. The first model will fly about 1,000km, far enough to ferry travellers from Boston to Washington or Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, the company said in October.
By applying advances in battery technology pioneered by the car industry, Zunum aims to eliminate the emissions and roar of combustion-based jet engines. That is a tall order for a company with just 15 employees, especially in a business where breakthrough designs can cost billions of dollars. Zunum, backed by JetBlue Airways as well as Boeing, is racing competitors such as Airbus and a partnership that includes easyJet. The US military and Nasa are pursuing similar concepts.
“People are surfing that Tesla wave, if you will, with some of the same range anxiety,” says the aviation consultant Robert Mann. “Everyone is looking at this.”
Airbus is also looking to develop autonomous aircraft and technologies that will allow a single pilot to operate commercial jetliners, helping cut costs for carriers, says the chief technology officer Paul Eremenko, according to Bloomberg.
“The more disruptive approach is to say maybe we can reduce the crew needs for our future aircraft,” Mr Eremenk osays. “We’re pursuing single-pilot operation as a potential option and a lot of the technologies needed to make that happen has also put us on the path towards unpiloted operation.”
The aerospace industry has begun seeing a similar trend as the car market, where car makers are investing in or acquiring autonomous driving start-ups. Plane manufacturers including Airbus and Boeing are racing to develop artificial intelligence that will one day enable computers to fly planes without human beings at the controls.
Turning that idea into a practical reality will not be easy in an industry where at least two pilots in the cockpit have been the norm for commercial flights for several decades. After a Germanwings pilot flew an A320 plane into the French Alps in March 2015, killing all 150 people on board, many airlines around the world made at least two people in the cockpit mandatory at all times.
In addition to there being no transport-category aircraft certificated for a single pilot or pilotless flight, it is unclear whether passengers or their insurers or carriers would accept or permit it, says the aviation consultant Robert Mann, a former American Airlines executive.
Shukor Yusof, the founder of the aviation consulting firm Endau Analytics in Malaysia, adds: “People are arguably apprehensive about these kind of things.
“You have driverless cars, driverless buses, but for something that flies, that’s something different.”
Airbus has a division called Urban Air Mobility that is exploring technology from on-demand helicopter rides to delivery drones. Boeing said last month it purchased a company that is developing flying taxis for Uber Technologies.
Last week, Airbus agreed to set up an innovation center in China’s Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. The facility will help accelerate research needed to chart the future of air travel, and China will provide Airbus an opportunity to design and develop such technologies, Mr Eremenko says.
“I think the general aviation space in China is just opening up,” he says. “There’s an opportunity for China to sort of take a leap ahead as it has been prone to do in other areas and design the aerospace system, design the regulatory regime to be future looking, forward looking to enable urban air mobility.”
The France-based company is also exploring technologies that will bring more automation to the cockpit of planes that could help resolve shortage of pilots in countries like China, which is set to emerge as the world’s biggest aviation market in less than a decade. Discussions are on with Chinese companies such as Baidu to find ways to apply self-driving vehicles to the aviation industry, Mr Eremenko says.
Airbus’ A3 Silicon Valley think tank has also been working on its proposed Vahana flying taxi, due for its first test before the end of this year. The pilotless, electric-powered vehicle could be hailed like a conventional cab, but will not get stuck in traffic jams.
The single-person flying machine could slash journey times for city dwellers over a range of 75km, according to Airbus.