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Everything you need to know about electric airplanes.
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Dreams of electric fleets
Electric airplanes could do us a world of good. They could reduce emissions and more economically move people from one place to another, all more cheaply than those traditional aircraft powered by fossil fuels.
But so far, electric airplanes haven’t quite taken off. Weighed down by engineering challenges and without any big investments from airlines, electric flight has remained a quixotic experiment for decades.
Now that’s changing. Private companies have put in the research to overcome those engineering issues, building planes that cost and emit less, finally making electric airplanes attractive for airlines and feasible for the masses. If these companies are successful, they will eliminate a huge proportion of the direct emissions for most commercial aviation.
But to do that, these companies have to move their innovative planes from prototype to commercial runways to 30,000 feet—no small challenge.
Please fasten your seatbelt as we prepare for takeoff.
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By the digits
$128.5 million: Amount raised by firms building small electric aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) in 2018
$1.2 trillion: Amount US households spent on ground transportation and conventional air travel in 2018 (pdf)
$180 billion: Amount the aviation industry spends each year on jet fuel
2.5%: Share of global emissions produced by the aviation industry
506 miles (814 km): Distance Eviation’s planned Alice 9-passenger electric aircraft can fly on a single charge
≥10: Orders for Alice, priced at $4 million per plane
8.2 billion: Air travelers per year expected in 2037, according to the International Air Transport Association
200: Electric aircraft estimated to be under development since 2019, up one third from a year earlier
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Explain it like I’m 5!
Since the mid-2000s, conventional aircraft such as the Boeing 787 have been undergoing electric makeovers. But no commercial aircraft is propelled by that electric power.
If a plane isn’t propelled by fossil fuel, the energy to make it go has to be stored somehow. Storing enough energy for a flight while keeping the aircraft light enough to be airborne has proven to be difficult to engineer.
Since today’s batteries don’t pack enough punch to keep commercial airlines aloft for long-haul flights, engineers are combining batteries, fuel cells, or even gas turbines to supplement electric motors or conventional engines. That could save fuel, and get electric aircraft in the sky sooner.
It won’t be easy to make these big strides. Since the advent of jet airliners more than 60 years ago, aircraft efficiency has improved by 1% per year, aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia told Wired: “It will be very hard to suddenly generate double-digit improvements.”
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“Electrification is set to have as dramatic an impact on aviation as the replacement of piston engines by gas turbines. We are at the dawn of the third era of aviation.”
—Rob Watson, director of Rolls-Royce Electrical
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1973: The Militky MB-E1 becomes the first electric airplane to complete a manned flight at a maximum altitude of 1,247 feet (380 meters) for 12 minutes.
1979: AeroVironment’s Solar Challenger completes a five-hour, 170-mile flight across the English Channel using only solar panels and no batteries.
1995: NASA’s Pathfinder soars to 50,567 feet (15,412 m) during a 12-hour flight, a new record for solar-powered aircraft.
2011: The Solution F/Chretien Helicopter—the first piloted, untethered electric helicopter—takes flight.
2015: Airbus’s electric plane flies across the English Channel.
2016: The Solar Impulse 2 becomes the first solar-powered plane to circumnavigate the world.
2019: The Ampaire 337, the largest hybrid-electric aircraft, completes a successful test flight.
2020: The electric-powered Cessna 208B Grand Caravan claims its 30-minute flight made it the largest commercial aircraft to fly on electric power.
2030: British budget airline EasyJet plans for a fleet of Wright 1s, 186-seat electric airliners with an expected 800-mile range, to be used on short-haul routes.
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Take me down this 🐰 hole!
Planes aren’t the only electric-powered vehicles that have begun taking to the skies. More than 200 electric aircraft are now in development from dozens of companies. Here are some of the things you can expect to see in the near future.
Drones: Tiny electric drones have been buzzing above our heads for years now, but manufacturers have scaled them up for short flights to transport people and cargo. Commercial drones can be the size of small cars, and generally have multiple small electric rotors with modest batteries for short hops. Autonomous drones have already been transporting people in China, while the smaller Zipline vehicles bring blood and other lifesaving products to remote areas.
Electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL): Air taxis that can take off and land like helicopters, and then fly as airplanes could make our visions of a flying-car future come to pass, sort of. Today, short-haul air transport is the domain of pricey helicopters, but electric eVTOL aircraft would be radically cheaper and more efficient. Investors poured more than $128.5 million into companies developing eVTOL aircraft in 2018, reports Pitchbook, a private equity research firm.
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