In 2007, a quintessential “garage inventor” named Randall Fishman showed up out of nowhere at Oshkosh AirVenture with an electric-powered ultralight—and quietly turned the aviation world on its ear. Fishman’s modest flights rekindled the century-old aviation zeitgeist of electric power that will transform flight as surely as the gas engine transformed ground travel.
Flash-forward to AirVenture 2010. Quiet as a whisper, a graceful sailplane slices through the air before an audience of thousands, in a consummate expression of the aerodynamicist’s art and the pilot’s skill. On a long, flat final, its 65.6-foot “super elliptical” wing curves upward like a huge smile. Then something rises behind the sleek pod’s clear canopy—a double-poled pylon sporting a large propeller. The prop spins up, but there’s no engine noise. As the motorglider levels off to fly down the runway, a wave of comprehension follows in its silent wake: This glider is electric-powered.
Antares 20E is an exotic creature like few of us will ever fly. Of course, the big story is the electric propulsion itself. A 42 kW (kilowatt) external rotor motor gives an 866 fpm climb. A full charge brings climb to nearly 10,000 feet—an impressive achievement. Given its power-off sink rate of just 96 fpm, a typical flight on a soarable day might entail a modest, energy-conserving climb to 3,000 feet, engine switch-off and soaring flight. At day’s end, the remaining battery power would easily carry the craft to a nearby airfield.
A specialized flight profile to be sure, but one that optimizes the current potential of electric motor efficiencies (currently 85% and higher) and ever-increasing battery storage potential. Yet, as a company spokesman for Sikorsky’s electric helicopter project elucidated recently, reducing battery weight while increasing storage capacity remains the big bottleneck.
Nonetheless, the Antares 20E is the first certified production electric aircraft in the world! As such, its designer Axel Lange just won the LEAP individual achievement award. The Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize is designed to accelerate the development of the electric aircraft industry. Founder Erik Lindbergh believes prizes inspire innovators to invest more time and money and bring more visibility to their efforts. Few goals are more tantalizing than being “first” or “best.”
The Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize (LEAP) offers prizes for innovations within the electric aviation industry. The team at Sonex won a prize for best electrical aircraft systems/component technology.
Lindbergh’s LEAP brings an elegant full-circle closure to the family legacy: It was, after all, the Orteig Prize that compelled his grandfather Charles to fly the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. The LEAP prize amount, by the way, is $25,000: same as the Orteig award. That’s kind of neat.
The Wright Buzz
These are the Wright Brothers’ days for alternative-powered aviation. The next time someone tries to rain on your electric-flight parade by citing short flight durations, just say, “Orville’s first flight in 1903 lasted 12 seconds. In less than two years, Wright Flyer III flew for 38 minutes. So buzz off.”
Buzz off indeed: This is goose-bump time. Electric flight is here. Reading the tea leaves, it’s reasonable to project that within two to five years, we’ll have 10 or more viable electric-powered aircraft to buy that will fly for at least an hour. Some will have flight endurances approaching the three-hour mark. And if anticipated breakthroughs in battery-density technology pay off—current research shows exciting promise—flight times will race past two hours to deliver true electric cross-country flight, not to mention many more electric automobile models, which is driving much of the current research.
This is history in the making: Electric flight is no longer an “if” but a “when.”
No doubt the most visible and viable large-scale electric enterprise is Yuneec International. This Chinese-British joint-venture company created a sensation last year at Oshkosh AirVenture with demonstration flights of its aesthetically stunning E430 two-seat S-LSA. At AirVenture 2010, Yuneec again demonstrated a talent for innovation—and newsmaking—by winning the LEAP prize for the E430 as Best Electric Aircraft. This on the heels of the prestigious 2010 British Design Museum Award earlier this year.
But wait, there’s more. Although the E430 is still a year from production, Yuneec hurtles forward in its bid to become the commercial electric-powered-airplane builder. Its product line includes powered electric backpacks for foot-launched paragliders, electric hang-glider trikes, Tom Peghiny’s eSpyder ultralight (which also nears production), and two new motorgliders: the two-seat, t-tail Viva (also an S-LSA), and the Apis 2, a single-seater with a retractable prop similar to the Antares 20E. Both are brainchildren of noted German designer Martin Wezel.
Yuneec also just inked a deal with longtime, well-respected RC model battery maker Dow Kokam, to provide battery packs with 1,500 charging cycles—twice as long as what the E430 carried last year.
Here’s a new aviation acronym: BBR (before battery replacement). It may very well replace TBO (time between overhaul)! That number for the E430 is now 3,000 hours, or $3/hour of electricity cost from an expected three to four hours of recharge time, with total operating costs of $25-$30 hour. Meanwhile, Yuneec’s proprietary electric engine needs no oil, and the “overhaul” consists of replacing two bearings every few thousand hours or so—a one-hour job!
Yuneec’s Managing Director Clive Coote expects to deliver the first 100 E430 two-seaters, with flight endurance of two hours, for $89,995. And lest anyone accuse Yuneec of blue-sky hyperbole, it’s backing its play by augmenting its already massive factory floor space from 250,000 to 470,000 square feet. This isn’t a company to take lightly.
Dreaming Of Electric Sheep
There are enough electric projects to make your head spin like an electric top.
Longtime homebuilt-kit maker Sonex also won a LEAP prize for best electrical aircraft systems/component technology. After years in development, the company is about to fly its Waiex electric airplane. Waiex has a brushless 270-volt DC cobalt motor drawing on 800 LiPo (lithium polymer) batteries linked together. Total battery weight: 300 pounds.
Helicopter giant Sikorsky unveiled its Project Firefly single-seat eggbeater, a re-engineered S-300C that’s due for first flight this fall. Initial expectations include 15-minute flights, with three-hour durations as the goal. Firefly will have a 190 hp-equivalent electric motor.
Meanwhile, Elektra One from PC-Aero represents the opening salvo of another manufacturer’s long-term intent to market an entire family of electric-powered light aircraft—with flight durations of three hours. First seen at Germany’s Aero show last spring, the single-seater is the vanguard of two- and four-seat electric models.
Not to be left behind, Cessna Aircraft and Bye Energy recently announced an electric Cessna 172! The e-Skyhawk would weigh around 1,300 pounds, be powered by a 168 hp motor and controlled by a Vertical Power monitoring system. Cessna and Bye will jointly develop the project, which could lead to retrofits for the C-172 fleet—the most-produced GA airplane ever at 43,000—and a sizable potential market. Two powerplants are in R&D: all-electric and diesel/electric hybrid. A proof-of-concept version could fly by year’s end.
Homebuilt-kit maker Sonex Aircraft’s electric aircraft, Waiex, was on display at EAA AirVenture 2010. It features a brushless 270-volt DC cobalt motor that draws on 800 lithium polymer batteries linked together. The total battery weight is 300 pounds.
Fueling The Future
At this year’s first-ever Oshkosh Electric Flight World Symposium, famed aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan made a wish: “I want to see an electric manned aerobatic airplane perform here at Oshkosh.” That wish may have already sprouted wings: EADS, parent company of Airbus, showed a tiny electric single-seat flivver at the Green Aviation Show in Paris last spring that’ll do a full 15-minute aerobatic routine! The buglike design, nicknamed the Green Cri, is a reworked Cri-Cri developed by France’s Michel Colomban in the 1970s. Originally powered by two tiny engines, the electric version’s four brushless motors spin counter-rotating props!
Another mind-zapping project about to catch the public eye melds a tail-less sailplane fuselage based on Greg Cole’s SparrowHawk with eight electric motors mounted to a tilting wing, a la the military V-22 Osprey. The eccentric concept comes from the Gyro Gearloose mind of inventor JoeBen Bevirt and his Joby company. The motors, developed for Joby by Diederik Marius, displayed at the recent CAFE Electric Aircraft Symposium IV. The unit weighs less than seven pounds and generates more than 13 hp. Dubbed the Monarch, the craft will swing carbon-fiber props.
Ready to sell is the Powrachute ElectraChute, a powered parachute based on its Voyager Rotax-powered model and driven by a 128-volt, LiPo-juiced pusher motor.
Bending The Mind
As companies big and small fly through the R&D trail, fused motor controllers, flash-burned components, spark showers worthy of Nicola Tesla, blown-out transistors and back-to-the-drawing-board mutterings will attend all efforts. Yet never fear: The gritty stuff of technical innovation produces soaring visions—enough to take your breath away.
Recent "skymark" flights include:
• Zephyr: an unmanned, solar-powered aircraft that flew for two weeks—and could have continued indefinitely.
• Observer: Yet another unmanned electric surveillance aircraft, this four-engine prototype will eventually be powered by a liquid-hydrogen fuel system. Built by the late, great Dr. Paul MacCready’s AeroVironment, it flew an hour at 4,000 feet, entirely controlled from the ground.
• Solar Impulse: also solar-powered, but manned. It flew 26 hours nonstop, while maintaining a 40% power reserve, meaning it could have easily flown beyond the physical limitations of its single human pilot.
• Sunseeker III: the latest version from hang-glider veteran Eric Raymond of a design he has successfully flown for more than 20 years will be the world’s first two-seater solar airplane.
We’re not even talking about fuel cells or hybrid electric/gas powerplants. Several companies including Boeing (SUGAR Volt airliner concept), General Electric, Cessna and LSA producer Flight Design are working hard on both concepts.
Meanwhile, the regulatory picture moves along. FAA seems favorably disposed to legalize electric power—there’s currently no provision for it. Electric-powered LSA will likely be the first implementation, due to the less encumbered nature of ASTM certification.
The Soul Of Innovation
Randall Fishman blew everybody away just three years ago with his ElectraFlyer ultralight. He followed up with the single-seat kit-plane-style C model and is developing the ElectraFlyer-X, a composite two-seater. Meanwhile a 13-year-old boy is hard at work outfitting an ultralight for electric power. And while neither have the resources of Yuneec, General Electric or even Sonex, don’t count out these one-man design teams just yet: ElectraFlyer-X or the ultralight or another still-obscure endeavor could easily become that lightbulb aircraft moment that changes everything.
In the meantime, someday not long from now, something will catch your eye. You’ll look up to see, rather than hear, an airplane climbing out to the horizon with nary a sound signature to mark its launch. It’ll never gas up at the pump. Never rattle or vibrate with engine noise. It won’t leak oil or require a magneto check or pollute the air. Can you imagine anything quite as sublime, or more thrilling, than that?
CAFE Electric Aircraft Symposium
Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prizes
Paris Green Air Show
Sonex e-Flight Initiative