Electro-Pioneers Are Reinventing Aviation

Start-ups and well-known aviation companies are working on the electrification of aircraft in numerous worldwide projects – how far do these visions still have to go for aviation to achieve its low CO2 goals?

“When it comes to the electrification of aviation, we are on the threshold of a new era. The question is no longer whether it will happen, but rather how quickly,” says Olaf Otto, Head of Sales and Business Development eAircraft at Siemens, the team responsible for developing the concept. The eAircraft team at Siemens is designing certified electric engines for aircraft.

Olaf Otto, Head of Sales and Business Development eAircraft, SIEMENS

“At first we were laughed at. But a company like SIEMENS has to look ahead and anticipate future trends.”

Olaf Otto, Head of Sales and Business Development eAircraft, SIEMENS

Study predicts rapid development by 2050

Research by consultancy Roland Berger predicts that there could be e-planes in all segments as early as 2050. They have counted over 90 ongoing development projects worldwide, many of which were initiated by start-ups. However, Manfred Hader, Senior Partner at Roland Berger, expects the development of larger aircraft will be carried out by the well-known players, who have the expertise in research and development as well as the necessary capital investment. After all, neither the tried and tested business models nor the necessary regulatory frameworks are in place. From a technical point of view, the low efficiency of the batteries is a major hurdle.

The pioneers will not allow this to deter them. Easyjet, for example, is aiming to electrify short-haul flights and is cooperating with the US start-up Wright Electric. The first flights with a nine-seater electric aircraft are scheduled to take off as early as 2019. Airbus is also setting its sights high with E-Fan X. In this project, for example, a four-engine regional Avro RJ100 jet will serve as a prototype for the use of a hybrid electric drive system. Initially, one jet engine will be replaced by a two-megawatt electric motor – a second will follow later – and an AE2100 engine will also be installed at the rear. Project manager Olivier Maillard plans to start test flights at the end of 2020 and the first public flights a year later. The Norwegian government even plans to allow only electric aircraft on short-haul routes by 2040. Airport operator Avinor expects to be able to put the first electric aircraft into operation as early as 2025, with space for 25 to 30 passengers and a range of around 90 minutes.

E-aircraft from Airbus: Avro RJ100 as E-Fan X prototype

Alice” is an aircraft powered by three 260 kW electric motors that can cover 1045 kilometers at a time. It is being developed by the Israeli start-up Eviation Aircraft, and their aims are ambitious. Alice should be ready to fly for the first time in 2019, certified by 2021 and ready for commercial service from 2022, and will accommodate up to nine passengers on board. Siemens and Eviation are working together to integrate the drive system and are developing a heat management system, among other things.

Development work far from over

Siemens is, however, setting itself even greater goals and aims – like Airbus, for example – to venture into higher performance categories. “We still have a lot of development work ahead of us, even though we’ve come a long way in terms of safety and understanding how electrically powered aircraft work,” says Olaf Otto. For one thing, they now need to further enhance the systems’ performance. “We have to remove even more weight and improve cooling, among other things.” The focus continues to be on increasing safety: “We carefully consider which error modes are in the system and then design it in such a way that we achieve the required reliability. In my opinion, this is the biggest challenge, because faults like these can be quite trivial. What do we do if the winding system in an electric motor has a short circuit? You have to ask yourself questions like that, analyze them fully and develop solutions.”

And all of these factors must also be verifiable: “So far, nobody has certified an electric drive system, so we are lacking decades of experience and regulations compared to the combustion sector. We are putting a lot of energy into this aspect in order to develop the basics together with the relevant committees and authorities.” In their work, the engineers use product lifecycle management software that makes it possible to completely simulate engine construction, allowing them to eliminate superfluous parts as early as the design phase. “The project involves many different disciplines – from structural mechanics and electromagnetics to thermodynamics. A complete representation in the digital world – the digital twin – makes the development faster and more accurate.”

Cooperation between Fraport and Volocopter: electric air taxi

Recognizing a future trend

Siemens was a pioneer when it came to electric aircraft: “When we started to work on the concept, we were laughed at,” Olaf Otto recalls. “But a company like ours doesn’t just look a year ahead, it has to look further into the future and anticipate the trends that are coming. In the meantime, the big players have followed suit.” Aviation is a completely new area of business for Siemens. “But we have all the more experience with electricity, really understand everything that moves electrons from A to B, and have been building electric engines, for example for trains, for well over 100 years,” says Otto.

Airports are adapting to changes in their infrastructure. Fraport, for instance, is initially concentrating on electric air taxis and has entered into a cooperation with Volocopter. Florian Reuter, Managing Director of Volocopter GmbH, explains: “Creating the ideal connection between the city center and the airport represents a significant challenge for the world’s major cities. We will draw on Fraport’s wealth of experience to integrate the Volocopter service safely and efficiently into the complex processes of a large international airport.”

Text by Juliane Gringer
Photos by Eviation, Airbus, AERO Friedrichshafen, Volocopter/Nikolay Kazakov, Wright Electric, Siemens.