After years of development and tantalising demonstrator projects, electric aircraft are on the horizon to make emission-free air travel a reality.
A host of aviation companies have set their sights on landmark firsts, and 2022 could prove a watershed year for the emerging technology.
With demand for air travel beginning to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, those at the forefront of electric aviation believe the technology will play a critical role in reducing emissions by providing an alternative to harmful short-haul flights – which have a bigger carbon footprint per passenger than longer flights.
In the Middle East, Israel’s Eviation plans to carry out the first test flight of Alice, its electric aircraft, in a matter of weeks.
Eviation chief executive Omer Bar-Yohay said the first flight of the sleek prototype, hailed as the world’s first all-electric commuter aircraft, “will usher in a new era of aviation”.
“People will experience what affordable, clean, and sustainable aviation looks and sounds like for the first time,” he told The National.
In the future, aircraft like Alice, that fly using only electric power, will become a common sight in skies around the world, Mr Bar-Yohay said.
“All-electric aviation will no longer need the 'all-electric' prefix to it – it will become the norm,” he said.
Despite having not yet flown, Eviation has already started taking orders for Alice, with logistics company DHL ordering 12 to add to its fleet of cargo aircraft.
Due for delivery in 2024, DHL hopes the aircraft, which can carry more than a tonne of cargo, will help it cut operating costs and meet its targets for reducing emissions.
But Eviation's road from drawing board to a first test flight has not been easy, requiring iterations over several years and extensive ground testing.
“We are progressing towards the historic first flight each day, working our way through taxi milestones and key integration tests related to the innovative propulsion system used on Alice,” Mr Bar-Yohay said.
Alice is just one of several all-electric aircraft in advanced stages of development around the world.
Yakir Machluf, mobility lead at venture capital investing platform OurCrowd, said this year was “a critical one for all-electric flights”.
“Companies like Eviation, Harbour Air, MagniX, Joby Aviation and others are well into the flight-testing phase, aiming at exhibiting short haul flight capabilities,” he told The National.
Alongside progress on the technical front, recent development to the legislation needed to allow electric aircraft to operate was also important, he said.
The US Federal Aviation Administration late last year released its final guidance that will allow electric aircraft motors – and the planes they power – to be certified as safe to fly.
This announcement, Mr Machluf said, “paves the way to all-electric plane certification, and 2022 might be the year that a first e-aircraft certification is granted.”
Despite the progress that has been made towards making electric flight a reality in recent months, significant challenges remain before more widespread adoption – including on longer routes – can take place.
“Improving battery capabilities is key to lowering weight, reducing costs and extending ranges,” said Mr Machluf, adding that certification requirements could slow the penetration of electric flight into certain markets.
“In two to three years' time we should expect commercial short-haul flights to proliferate, while long-haul flights will rely heavily on battery tech breakthroughs expected towards 2030,” he said.