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Electric engines, the new trend in aeronautics

Picture of Manuel Castellanos

Manuel Castellanos

AERTEC / Aerospace Industry


Electric engines, which first appeared in a constantly evolving sector like the aviation industry several years ago, have managed to take centre stage in recent months. The aviation world is studying the possibility of offering an interesting alternative on short-haul flights through the use of electric engines on aeroplanes, which will make them more economic and efficient than conventional models.

If price were not a problem, there is no doubt that it would be ideal if we could enjoy this kind of transport in our daily lives.

A very tight race is currently being run to be the first to offer these ambitious plans. Zunum Aero, a startup founded in 2013 and already known as the “Tesla of aviation”, aims to launch its first line of electric aeroplanes in 2020. Its intention is to make short-haul flights of a range of around 1,000 km with enough capacity to carry between 10 and 50 people and it hopes to improve on these conditions over time with technology enhancements. For the moment, the company expects to use hybrid aircraft; that is to say, it will use combustion engines along with electric engines to extend route ranges. This is also the case of the 330LE prototype being jointly developed by Siemens and Airbus, which also makes use of hybrid engines in the same way as we are now seeing in the automotive industry.

The statistical studies conducted to date reveal that 95% of trips of less than 700 km are made in cars. This figures falls to 61% for trips of between 800 and 1,200 km and to 50% for trips of between 1,200 and 1,600 km. Consequently, it appears that a large part of these percentages could be taken up by electric-powered aeroplanes. The greatest disadvantage is the one that has always existed, one of engineering’s major unresolved tasks, batteries, which still lack the capabilities offered by today’s commercial aircraft. In spite of these difficulties, Boeing and JetBlue have already invested in Zunum’s programmes to monitor the development of these engines closely. Another company with a similar project is Wright Electric, which in conjunction with Easyjet hopes to start up commercial flights using electric aeroplanes within the next ten years and thus to compete with Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s, the world’s best-selling aircraft.

The world of aviation was surprised by Solar Impulse II. Making make use of the 17,000 solar cells it was equipped with to recharge its batteries with clean energy and power its several electric engines at the same time, it managed to fly around the world without any emissions. Though it is true that it took much longer than commercial aeroplanes would take and that its transport capacity in no way compares with the latter, it could well be the start of a new trend in aviation. Moreover, Airbus also plans to also commercialise its first electric aeroplane this very year, the E-Fan 2.0, a two-seater electric aircraft which, in principle, is aimed at the pilot training.

Electric power plants have also been used in a series of American experimental aircraft, some of which were designed by NASA, like the X-57 Maxwell for instance, and in others designed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in programmes like the creation of the XV-24A Lightning Strike.

What is clear, however, is that we are immersed in a new aviation era, in which the use of electric engines seems to be an essential factor. There can be no doubt that this is the era of drones. Companies like the XTI Aircraft Company are interested in starting up projects geared at creating electric aeroplanes with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities to transport people. As a matter of fact, the German company E-Volo has already tested its prototype, the VC200 Volocopter, considered to be an electric multi-rotor helicopter or “multicopter”. The eighteen rotors of the VC200 Volocopter ensure great stability in the air, though it is unable to fly at high speed for the moment. There are many other projects aimed at similar objectives. In Germany, the Lilium Jet is slated for commercialisation in 2018 in conjunction with the European Space Agency. In Switzerland, an experimental project called H55 has been put forward that has developed the aEro1 aircraft, which also uses electric propulsion technology to fly.

If price were not a problem, there is no doubt that it would be ideal if we could enjoy this kind of transport in our daily lives. The pity is that the legislation on this type of vehicles would make it very difficult to fly them freely, especially in a period like today marked by the threat of terrorism. A long time will have to pass and the issue of licences resolved until we can see these multicopters fly across our skies.


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