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From Past to Future: Battery-Electric Aircraft Are on the Rise
A round up of airplane modification projects in battery-electric aviation.
Traditional aerospace engine makers are known to modify existing aircraft to test future propulsion technologies. The start-ups follow the giant’s steps to prove their designs on various platforms. Here’s a look at what technology demonstrators are flying and the potential technologies that’ll come to an airplane near you.
Electric propulsion technologies have three main categories: battery-electric, hybrid-electric, and hydrogen. The first installment in this series will look at the modified battery-electric demonstrators.
Embraer’s Electric Demonstrator
The Brazillian company is developing a slew of clean sheet hybrid-electric and hydrogen-electric regional aircraft and eVTOLs. It converted an Embraer EMB-203 Ipanema, an agricultural plane for one pilot, to run on batteries and advance its knowledge in energy storage and battery charging technologies. This demonstrator is the smallest airplane to be converted of all the projects. It was a collaboration between the Brazilian planemaker, Portuguese-Brazilian energy company EDP, and Brazillian electronics company WEG. The aircraft made its maiden flight in August 2021.
Although the company has yet to share much detail about the testing it conducted since then, it brought it in front of the public for the first time during the 2023 SAE Brazil Congress in October 2023.
Harbour Air’s eBeaver
Harbour Air is the largest seaplane operator in North America. It primarily provides services between Vancouver and small communities spread across Vancouver Island, with flight times of around 30 minutes. It was the prime use case for battery-electric flights based on the current battery capacity. Therefore, it has partnered with MagniX to retrofit one of its de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver with an electric engine and battery packs.
The partners had conducted their first flight back in December 2019. It was also one of the most active battery-electric demonstrators, if not the only one. The airplane has since made its first cross-country flight in August 2022. The duo expects to add another converted Beaver to its test fleet next year. The seaplane operator now predicts an entry into service in 2025, about three years later than its original plan.
MagniX’s eCaravan and e-R44
MagniX is undoubtedly one of the most active developers and leaders in electric propulsion. In addition to electrifying the Beaver, it also electrified a Cessna C208 Grand Caravan, dubbed eCaravan, and a Robinson R44 Helicopter, dubbed e-R44.
The eCaravan was a collaboration between the Everett, Wash.-based engine maker and engineering firm AeroTEC. The eCaravan took its first flight in May 2020. However, AeroTEC has converted the plane back to its combustion engine configuration. According to FAA records, the total flight time logged on the electric engine was only 0.5 hours. Luckily, the company has inked a deal with Surf Air Mobility to develop a new hybrid-electric propulsion system for the Cessna platform, so the lessons learned would not go to waste.
The e-R44 was also the result of collaboration with a specialized engineering company. Tier 1 was the driving force on this project, which flew its first electric R44 in 2016. MagniX provided propulsion for the Santa Ana, Calif-based company’s third-generation e-R44, which made its first flight in June 2022 and its first cross-country flight in October 2022.
The Italian planemaker also had its ambition set high on electrifying aviation. It had plans to build an electric version of its P2012 Traveller airplane and reintroduce it as P-VOLT. P-VOLT was not just a technology demonstrator but rather a new plane.
Despite the high hopes for this development, the company and its partner, Rolls-Royce, postponed the development in June 2023, citing battery technology limitations, especially in degradation.
Piper Aircraft’s Electric Archer
Another manufacturer that’s working on battery-electric conversion Supplemental Type Certificate is Piper Aircraft. The general aviation planemaker is working with CAE to convert two-thirds of the latter’s Piper Archer fleet into electric. The plane will use H55 battery packs and Safran ENGINeUSTM 100 electric smart motor. The duo plans to transition to training on electrified aircraft.
NASA X-57 Maxwell
Unlike the other battery-electric demonstrators, Maxwell’s main focus was on evaluating a Distributed Electric Propulsion architecture. The modified Tecnam P2006 was set to have 14 electric motors provided by Joby Aviation. However, the program was canceled in June 2023 due to safety issues.
Battery-electric planes caught investors’ attention as Tesla showed unstoppable growth. However, due to the battery technology limitation, all the technology demonstrators for 100% battery-powered planes are small and destined for short-range missions. Next week, we’ll look at hybrid-electric demonstrators that are planned or flying.
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