Electric aircraft: Coming soon to an airfield near you

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Multi-seat, cross-country electric airplanes are still a way off, but a test-flight of the Pipistrel Alpha electro shows real progress is being made.

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Just recently Electro.Aero based at Jandakot airport near Perth took delivery of the Pipistrel electric airplane as seen on a number of news sites over the past week. Although the media coverage was very positive it still attracted a number of scornful comments and on some occasions a complete misunderstanding of electric transportation.

Some of the technical information passed on by the media was a little vague so as an electric car owner that’s become totally fascinated with the future of transportation I was keen to take a flight in a craft that many people still don’t believe is possible, I have flown a small conventional aircraft before under instructor supervision but am in no way an expert on aviation, my observations are from a novice perspective. If you are an aviation fanatic look out for an electric aircraft coming to an airfield near you soon.

 

The aircraft

The Slovenian built Pipistrel Alpha electro is two seat training/recreational aircraft propelled by a 60kw electric motor; the battery pack sits just behind the propeller/motor and have a usable capacity of 20kwh. The batteries are charged using an external Pipistrel supplied charger plugged into a common 3 phase power outlet, maximum charger time is 70 minutes although this is rarely necessary and there is also the option of a quick battery swap.

The Flight

The first noticeable difference is the pre flight checks are done in near silence, the motor is switched off, the only power draw is a small amount taken up by the gauges, once take off permission is granted the propeller spins gently into life, no fuel waisted on engine warm up, the power consumed matches the power needed.

Take off is smooth with propeller and wind noise over the cabin evident, the lack of motor noise is a pleasant experience, we climb to 1000 feet with minimal effort and head North-west to Fremantle then North up the coast towards Scarborough beach, Alpha electro comfortably achieves 85 knots (157kmh) as we pass over the bumper to bumper motor vehicle traffic heading to the beach.

The return journey South is over the water, Perth’s busy beaches to the left, Rottnest Island 18 km to the Right, the journey continues on past Fremantle as we head to Coogee before a direction change to the East and back to Jandakot airport.

The Flight data

I estimated we covered a little over 80kms during the 50 minute flight (yes I am aware aviators use knots and flight time rather than distance), the aircraft departed its hangar with 97% charge and returned with 52% charge remaining, keeping in mind the batteries bottom 30% is kept for the 30 minute reserve so is effectively off limits. Based on those figures the complete energy consumption translates to 9kwh or less than $3 using grid power.

The battery pack

The media reported the battery packs are good for 1000 hours of flying, I’m not sure at what stage the packs would be regarded as unsuitable for aircraft but I believe that to be a very conservative figure, getting the battery cost per hour down will make all the difference.

The Positives

Overall the Alpha Electro does the job as intended, short range recreational and training, there is also this misconception that going electric is all about saving the planet, luckily that type of one dimensional thinking is quickly fading, as well as the potential savings in fuel, maintenance and long term ownership the full flying experience is far more pleasant, for the passengers and the residents who live near flight paths.

The future

Multi seat cross country electric aircraft are a long way off still, this would take some tremendous developments in battery chemistry, but as small improvements in battery energy density are made available electric aircraft will steadily gain more flying time and carry more passengers and freight.

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15 Comments
  1. George AD 1 year ago

    There’s definitely a small niche here, and large aircraft are decades away. But an electric light-small aircraft from a proven manufacturer is a real achievement and should be celebrated. Pipistrel is helped by their focus on light weight and efficiency, but they show what can be done. I expect that much of their segment will become electric within the next decade.

    Larger aircraft are still years away, and large commercial passenger aircraft even further. There’s a lot of physics and energy density problems to overcome. These are not trivial.

    But think back to where electric vehicles were two decades away. The idea of every large manufacturer adopting electric cars was a dream, and electric heavy trucks were an impossibility.

    • Joe 1 year ago

      Solar Impulse 1 was a breakthrough in demonstrating the possiibilities of long distance electric flight. Then Solar Impulse 2 came along, it flew around the world. Not without problems I acknowledge but there was progression. And there will be more progress to come.

    • solarguy 1 year ago

      George, I think you will find there is a 20-40 passenger, electric aircraft in trials in Europe. PV on the wings would help the range of any electric aircraft.

      • George AD 1 year ago

        That would be the BAe 146 which has had one of four engines replaced with electric propulsion. It’s a technology testbed rather than a proof of concept. There’s still a huge amount of work before even a small passenger aircraft can be electric powered for regular commercial flight.

        If you’re interested in a deep dive into the subject, I recommend the series of posts by Bjorn Fehrm.
        https://leehamnews.com/tag/electric-aircraft/

      • George AD 1 year ago

        In the meantime, I think the biggest gains are to be had from:

        Plugging in on the ramp and replacing APU use (which has already started to happen), and electrifying more of the processes before takeoff and after landing.

        Electric assistance during takeoff and climb. Aircraft engines are a compromise between takeoff thrust and cruise efficiency, and there’s a lot of opportunity with an alternate power source that doesn’t breathe air.

        But even these will be slow processes. This is a cautious industry.

    • charles frogg 11 months ago

      Actually there were electric cars before internal combustion engined cars were on the dirt tracks. The first electric cars were built in 1859 the first internal combustion cars didn’t appear until after 1876.

  2. Jess Jennings 1 year ago

    Can you/RE tell us where and when the electric plane is going to be across Australia/NSW? – I’m keen to know about it arriving in Bathurst… cheers
    Jess

  3. Ian 1 year ago

    With the noisy racket that regular propeller planes make, the electrification of them would be greatly appreciated by many.

  4. dono 1 year ago

    Australia hasn’t designed any battery powered things but it does have a government powered by coal.

  5. James Hill 1 year ago

    Imagine when we put Solar on the wings and give the ability to re-charge while we fly.

    • See: Solar Impulse 2:
      https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/26/solar-impulse-plane-makes-history-completing-round-the-world-trip

      Also, see SunSeeker Duo:
      http://www.solar-flight.com/projects/sunseeker-duo/

      2 great examples! One of the extreme, one of the practicle – for personal use!

    • charles frogg 11 months ago

      especially at night. Definitely a no brainer a commercial electric planes capable of carrying 300 passengers non stop anywhere in the world. Actually it would be easier and a lot less costlier one would think to build a teleporter. When the small problem of a hundred ton of batteries being carried from start to finish of the flight and the building of a practical 110,000 horsepower electric motor only weighing 10 tons. At present a 2MW electric motor would weigh in the vicinity of 5 tons and examples of high output DC electric motors of 25MW weight being around 50Tons the engineering required to build an electric motor producing 110,000 HP and weighing around 10 tons looks an impossible dream.

  6. Robert Comerford 1 year ago

    I have been flying electric powered model aircraft since the mid 70’s, it is great to see it coming of age in the full size versions.

  7. Tony Wilson 1 year ago

    1: It is a very interesting development. The conventional (and perfectly sensible) attitude to electric aviation is that it’s nothing more than a hopeless dream with current technology, and no less hopeless with any technology on the horizon. There is no known way around the severe payload-range limitations; to become cost-effective for mainstream aviation, a major scientific breakthrough would be required. Here, however, you demonstrate a perfectly valid way forward. It doesn’t even try to solve the insurmountable problem of terrible payload-range performance, it just sidesteps it by applying battery power to a segment of aviation where payload-range, within reasonable limits, simply doesn’t matter. Brilliant!
    2: This is Australia. The word is “aeroplane”. Always. Every time.

  8. Ron Horgan 1 year ago

    A year or so ago I read of a cross channel flight of a battery electric passenger plane 80 seat capacity using 4 ducted fans in pods. Not fast but safe. Not yet carrying passengers.
    Also replacement of the jet motor used for ground AC with a plug in electric motor to save fuel and weight.

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