Could this battery-powered electric aircraft be the future of aviation?

Nine-seater commuter aircraft recently completed a test flight

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For everyone working at Eviation, an electric aircraft producer in the US, September 27 was a day to remember.

Seven years after the company was founded, its nine-seater battery-powered passenger plane took to the skies from an airfield in Washington state for a short but significant test flight.

The successful flight by Alice, as the commuter aircraft is called, moved Eviation one step closer to realising its ambition of creating an aircraft that could reinvigorate regional air travel.

Gregory Davis, Eviation’s president and chief executive, said everyone at the company was “still feeling very excited about what we’ve done”.

“We took the aircraft up to 3,500 feet and we were exactly eight minutes in the air,” he said.

“What we did in those eight minutes, we made aviation history. It’s the first time an electric aircraft of this scale has flown.”

Green dream takes flight

Aviation accounts for about 2.5 per cent of global CO2 emissions, so transitioning the sector away from its dependence on fossil fuels to clean electric power is seen as a priority.

While battery-powered electric aircraft such as Alice are far from being able to replace the large airliners used on long-haul routes, they may be able to take on city-to-city hops of, say, several hundred kilometres.

The potential benefits of Alice — which is named in honour of Alice in Wonderland, described by the company as “a story of wonder, exploration and discovery” — are based on what Mr Davis describes as the three Cs — carbon, cost and convenience.

In addition to being powered by emissions-free technology, if the electricity to charge the aircraft comes from a clean source, Alice could offer significant savings.

“There’s literally no tailpipe. The cost of electricity is substantially less than the cost of equivalent energy derived from aviation fuel,” Mr Davis said.

“They’re very efficient at low altitude and short ranges. It’s a different proposition in terms of propulsion technology.”

According to Eviation, maintenance costs, too, are likely to be lower than for conventional aircraft of the same size.

When it comes to convenience, Alice is being targeted in particular at the 20 to 30 per cent of flights that are less than 250 nautical miles (463km).

Mr Davis said that the number of regional aircraft services in America had dwindled in recent decades, but Alice could allow the sector to thrive again, and the model has already caught the interest of US airlines.

Cape Air, a regional US operator, is looking to take 75 aircraft, while Global Crossing Airlines, also a regional operator, is pencilled in for 50.

Last year, DHL became Eviation’s first cargo customer when it forged an agreement to take a dozen of the cargo version planes.

And earlier this month, Evia Aero, a German regional aviation start-up, signed a letter of intent for 25 planes.

Short-haul flights could take off in Middle East

Mr Davis is upbeat, saying that Eviation has “got more orders to come”, and he suggests that the aircraft, which is 17.4 metres long and has a wingspan of 19.2 metres, could connect key cities in the Middle East.

“If you look at the geography of the Middle East, at the UAE, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, I’m very excited about the prospect of having Alice rush back and forth between the major cities in the area. There are airports available right now,” he said.

“You can see the aircraft running for personal use or to move packages around. There are aircraft that go back and forth all the time.”

As well as the passenger and cargo versions, Eviation is marketing a six-seater executive version, with the company saying it expects there to be a market for “personal or executive use”.

Alice’s origins can ultimately be traced back to 2015, when Eviation was founded in Tel Aviv by two Israeli veterans, Omer Bar-Yohay and Aviv Tzidon.

Two years later, at the Paris Air Show, the company unveiled a one-quarter size prototype of Orca, an all-electric model named in honour of “the marine mammal’s speed and agility”.

In 2018, a year before a full-sized Alice was unveiled at the Paris Air Show, Eviation selected MagniX, a manufacturer of electric aircraft engines, to provide the power system.

Eviation moved to Arlington in Washington state, to the north of Seattle, in 2020.

Gregory Davis, Eviation’s president and chief executive, with battery-powered aircraft Alice. AFP

Aside from small battery-powered electric aircraft such as Alice, sustainable aviation is going to need what Mr Davis called “different approaches”, especially for larger planes, which are currently not able to be powered with batteries.

The battery accounts for a significant proportion of Alice’s total weight and as aircraft get larger or cover a longer range, more batteries are needed.

“At some point, as you add batteries, you’re adding more batteries to carry the batteries,” Mr Davis said. “It’s exciting to see the evolution of battery technology, but the energy density of our best batteries is little better than one-20th the energy density of typical jet fuels.

“We’re not going to see an electric aircraft fly across the Atlantic or the Pacific in our lifetime. What we’re doing with this nine-passenger aircraft, it’s very intentional.”

Pat Wheeler, of the Power Electronics, Machines and Control Research Group at the University of Nottingham in the UK, there are “a lot of routes to getting to a more sustainable industry”.

So, aside from electric aircraft powered by batteries, there has been much interest in, for example, electric aircraft, where hydrogen powers a fuel cell that then powers the aircraft. Hydrogen can also be used as an alternative fuel for jet engines.

“There’s plenty of solutions, but the direction of travel is electric propulsion,” Dr Wheeler said.

Trials with smaller battery-powered electric aircraft have been happening for many years and he said it was natural for companies to start small with nine-seater planes and consider how to work their way up.

With today’s batteries, the focus has to be on “relatively short-haul” flights, but new technologies may change this.

“Lithium batteries might not be the end of the story,” Dr Wheeler said. “People are looking at what the next step might be. If that next step is as big as previous steps … we won’t be having this conversation about aircraft that jump between cities one hour apart.

“With another of these steps in battery technology, all of a sudden, long-haul might be possible if the economics work out.”

Some countries are pushing for battery-powered electric aircraft, notably Norway, which has previously said all its short-haul flights will be carried out by electric aircraft by 2040.

“There’s the market there,” Dr Wheeler said. “If there’s the political will, I cannot see a technical reason why that might not happen.”

Eviation carried out its first test flight last month. Photo: Eviation

Plans to reach the skies by 2027

Eviation plans to begin a certification programme for Alice in 2025. An electric aircraft of this size has not been certified before, but the company will begin manufacturing at its headquarters in parallel with the certification programme, with the intention for the plane to enter into service in 2027.

“There’s a large market for an aircraft the size of Alice,” Mr Davis said. “I think we found the sweet spot in terms of design, figuring out the right product.”

The same market is on the radar of other companies, including Bye Aerospace, also in the US, which has reportedly received several orders for its eight-to-nine-seater eFlyer 800.

The nine-passenger figure is not only about hitting the economic sweet spot for battery-powered aircraft: it is also the limit for single-pilot operations.

Aside from getting the numbers right, Mr Davis said with Alice, the company has also been looking to create a pleasant experience.

“You’re presented with an absolutely beautiful aeroplane,” he said. “It’s going to be a very comfortable cabin experience and very quiet. We want people to feel joy.”

So, with Alice now having taken to the skies, and with further changes in technology not unlikely, a more sustainable — and perhaps quieter — future for aviation could be moving closer.

Updated: October 30, 2022, 2:00 AM
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