With the finish line now visible in the race for commercial electric flight, Selwyn Parker takes a bird’s-eye view of the battery-powered flyers landing (very!) soon at a place near you
The frontrunners in the race for commercial, electrically powered flight could hardly be more different. Vertical Aerospace’s VA-X4 is a bulbous-nosed prop-driven five-seater, including the pilot. Germany’s fish-shaped Lilium is a sleek swivel-winged design that distributes its six passengers front to back. China’s e-Hang two-seater looks like a helicopter cabin with wings mounted on two booms. And Eviation’s Alice, the fastest of the current designs, is a more normal-looking nine-passenger aircraft.
Despite the radical variation in design, all these aircraft share something in common. They will be much quieter than any of today’s aircraft. They are surprisingly quick, varying between 150 and 460 km/h. And they are just around the corner; most of these companies expect to start selling tickets around the middle of the decade.
In a few short years, commercial electrical flight has gone from dream to reality. Right now, regulators in Japan, Europe, the UK, and the US are putting several designs through the hoops. Virgin Atlantic is confident enough to have ordered a fleet of VA-X4s. Sweden’s Heart Aerospace says it has pre-sold no less than 200 of its ES-19s, a 19-passenger aircraft with a range of 300 km, for a planned debut in 2026. And DHL Express has ordered 12 Alices for delivery in about three years.
There are deep pockets involved. Rolls-Royce has built the electric power train in the VA-X4 and is investing in the P-Volt, a commuter aircraft carrying up to nine passengers that is due to take off commercially in 2026.
Down on terra firma, a new infrastructure is emerging in the form of “vertiports” to accommodate urban taxis in the form of eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing). Some German airports, including Munich, are preparing for the Lilium Jet. About 25 vertiports are planned in the UK, including one at London Heathrow, with 2025 set as a likely start date. Rome airport is readying for VoloCity’s e-copters. And airports in the US expect to have vertiports ready in about three years, just in time for the anticipated arrival of electric flight. An eVTOL can also use existing helipads, of which there are thousands around the world.
Electric flight promises to be a different experience for passengers. First, it will be much quieter in the cabin at cruising speed, probably around 45 decibels, which is roughly as loud as air conditioning or a washing machine. If you are in an eVTOL, flight times for short hops of around 160 km should be faster than conventional aircraft because it avoids taxiing up and down runways. Also, vertiports are expected to sprout up in such numbers they will be located much closer to home. Although it’s still decades away, life near a busy airport will become much quieter as the roar of jet aircraft could gradually be eliminated by electric flight.
But will electric flight be exclusively for the wealthy? Not according to the industry, which predicts ticket prices at least comparable with the cost of driving a car over an equivalent distance, bringing it within the pocket of most people. For instance, Lilium estimates an average cost of USD 2.25 per passenger mile in its six-passenger eVTOL, while US-based Jaunt Air Mobility predicts about USD 3 per mile for its electric helicopters, roughly equivalent to a ride in an up-market Uber.
Electric aircraft don’t offer a silver bullet to clean up the skies, not least because the current commercial fleet will massively outnumber them for decades to come. On the bright side, Airbus is in pursuit of what the aerospace group’s UK general manager Trevor Higgs calls “jet zero” by using sustainable fuel. Airbus has already set the date – it has promised to start selling zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.
The International Transport Forum’s (ITF) research into decarbonising air transport recommends that policy makers put in place timely and ambitious fuel quality requirements to encourage the take-up of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). ITF encourages governments to design fuel specifications with effective sustainability criteria which take life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions into account. Further work from ITF showcases flagship SAF policies from leading aviation markets in the US, European Union as well as in emerging markets.
Look, no pilot
Fully autonomous electric flight could also be around the corner, perhaps a decade away. China’s e-Hang says it’s just about ready to go, and, in October 2021, another Chinese company, AutoFlight, demonstrated an unpiloted eVTOL. Called the V1500M, it will carry four passengers for up to 250 km at a maximum speed of 200km/h, according to founder Tian Yu who prophesies: “The V1500M is a milestone for the global development of urban air mobility.”
It may take a while before passengers feel comfortable about unpiloted flight, though. In mid-2021, a global survey by McKinsey of 4 800 potential customers for electric flight found that, while most of them were attracted to the idea, 60 per cent cited safety as their top concern in fully autonomous aircraft.
Autonomous or not, electric flight will steadily become mainstream as scientists extract more bang for the lithium buck. Within 15 to 20 years, they predict, electric airliners could carry as many as 50 people over the range of 800 km, the distance of roughly half of all flights worldwide.
Yet a flying ferry may get there first! A Boston USA-headquartered marine group, Regent Craft, expects its Seaglider, an all-electric hydrofoil, will be able to travel at up to 160 knots (nearly 300 km/h) by virtue of wings that create a cushion of air over the water. The technology has been around for nearly half a century, but only recently has it been made safe. Regent Craft expects to launch the first 12-passenger flying ferry by 2025, with a 150-passenger version coming later. Towards the end of the decade, Regent Craft hopes the latest batteries will give its flying ferry the same magic range of 800 km.
“The potential to take share from airlines cannot be understated,” predicted chief executive Billy Thalheimer at a ferry conference in Spain in September.
So perhaps the threat to all flight – electrical and otherwise – may come from down below.
Selwyn Parker is an independent journalist and author of Chasing the Chimney Sweep about the first Tour de France of 1903.
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