8 Electric Airplane Startups Trying to Get Off the Ground
You might think that electric cars didn’t really exist until Tesla hit the scene with its sporty Roadster around 2008. The reality is that the first electric vehicle was invented way, way back in the 1830s when a Scottish inventor came up with an electric carriage powered by non-rechargeable primary cells. Of course, it took advances in technology, legislation, and higher fuel prices to spur enough innovation to convince some of the major automakers to start building all-electric vehicles in the late 1990s. Despite a long list of electric cars now available and more infrastructure such as charging networks, there are only an estimated 3.1 million electric vehicles on the roads worldwide today (though the number is projected to grow dramatically in the next decade). So, you’d have to be pretty crazy to bet on an electric airplane, right?
Getting Off the Ground with an Electric Airplane
Undoubtedly, the answer is yes. But crazy is how you take a startup like Tesla (TSLA), which raised about a quarter of a billion dollars during its IPO in 2010, and turn it into a company with a $40-billion market cap. Now, we can debate the financials – it lost nearly $700 million on total revenues of $4.5 billion in the first quarter of this year – but you can’t really question that the company helped drive electric vehicles into the mainstream. Whether any of the electric airplane startups that we profile below will have that sort of impact remains a big unknown. The Wright Brothers had a virtual monopoly on the airplane at the turn of the 20th century with their first successful flight in 1903, but the resulting company was out of the aviation business by the 1920s. So there’s that.
There’s also the fact that no one has actually built a commercial electric airplane yet. There are plenty of companies attempting to deploy what are essentially electric flying cars, sometimes referred to as an E-VOTL, for vertical takeoff and landing. But these autonomous flying taxis are designed to carry only a couple of passengers, with a range of about 100 miles. Real electric airplanes that can carry a half-dozen or more passengers between regional airports are the main subject of this article, because that’s where analysts believe they can compete effectively with their gas-guzzling counterparts. The amount of fuel burned during take-off and landings makes shorter hops – call it about 500 miles – more costly than long-haul routes where today’s planes are pretty fuel efficient.
The biggest challenge, as everyone will point out, is being able to build an electric airplane that can hit the sweet spot between weight and battery storage. That’s because batteries contain about 40 times less energy per unit of weight than jet fuel, according to some big brains that study these sorts of things. They concluded, however, that state-of-the-art lithium-ion batteries can provide a greater share of their energy to drive motion, so the final math actually says jet fuel contains about 14 times more usable energy than the best batteries. Now let’s see what’s awaiting us in the hangar.
Hybrid Electric Airplanes
The best-selling electric car of all time is actually a hybrid. Toyota has sold about 4.3 million models of the Prius since it debuted in 1997, according to Business Insider. At the time, it made sense to combine gas and electric, based on both the available technology and market conditions at the time. A Seattle area company called Zunum Aero, founded in 2013, hopes a hybrid electric plane will be easier to take off than an all-electric model to start. The company is backed by both Boeing (BA) and JetBlue (JBLU), though we only found $800,000 in grant money listed for total funding. It is also working with some smart minds at MIT on the battery technology that includes the co-founder of lithium-ion battery startup 24M.
Zunum Aero is building a 12-passenger hybrid-electric airplane that is powered by a pair of low-pressure ducted fans, each driven by an integrated 500-kilowatt permanent-magnet motor, according to a piece written by the company for IEEE Spectrum. They say the “fans provide high static thrust for takeoff, high efficiency for cruising, and – in part because of the ducting – significant reductions in noise.” The quiet electric propulsors, as the ducted fans are called, draw electricity from batteries located in the wings, supplemented by a 500-kW generator driven by two gas turbines. The system will produce 80% less noise and emissions, with a maximum range of about 700 miles.
There’s also a little artificial intelligence thrown in: Algorithms map out the most energy efficient route, then make adjustments on the fly based on sensor readings and real-time flight data and weather reports. Zunum Aero expects to begin flight tests this year, with commercial sales beginning in 2022. JetBlue and JetSuite have both reportedly signed on as customers.
Founded in 2016, Wright Electric Airplanes is a Los Angeles-based startup. It has raised about $120,000 in disclosed funding and is an alum of the Y Combinator incubator program. While the startup has set a course for working with EasyJet on an all-electric airplane that can seat 180 passengers, Wright Electric’s more immediate plans are far more modest.The company is working with a private jet company on developing a hybrid-electric airplane that can carry nine passengers.
Across the pond, we go, to a British startup called Faradair. Founded in 2014, the company has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding for its Bio Electric Hybrid Aircraft (BEHA), which it hopes will be ready to carry 18 passengers (or up to five tons of cargo) by 2025. Its rotating propfans only require about 1,000 feet of runway for takeoff and landing, and its hybrid propulsion system combines electric motors with a turboprop engine.
Electric Airplane Retrofit
Another Seattle area company, magniX, is also approaching the electric plane market with a different strategy by retrofitting gas-powered aircraft with its electric propulsion system. The three-year-old startup includes veterans from Airbus, Boeing, Ford, Google, GE Aviation, Pratt & Whitney, and Tesla. The company is partnering with a Canadian airline to convert its small seaplanes to electric with magniX’s 560-kW electric motor and lithium-ion batteries, all for the cost of a standard engine overall, according to IEEE Spectrum.
The XBrain is the control system for the aircraft, using algorithms to manage the operation of the plane and monitor engine health. The startup is also developing its own electric airplane with an expected range of 500 miles.
Back down the coast to LA: Founded in 2016, Ampaire took in $2.6 million the next year and also brings a team of tech veterans to the cockpit, including Boeing, SpaceX, and Virgin Orbit, among others. The startup is retrofitting gas-guzzling airplanes as a first step, with a hybrid electric system in partnership with an airline in Hawaii. The hybrid model can potentially save up to 70% in fuel expenses and possibly cut maintenance costs by as much as half, according to Ampaire.
Ampaire has also partnered with Vieques Air Link to eventually introduce electric aircraft on commercial routes in Puerto Rico and the surrounding region.
Electric Airplane Motor Outsourcing
Founded in 2015, Israel-based Eviation Aircraft is developing an electric airplane called Alice, which is designed to carry nine passengers up to 650 miles at a cruise speed of 240 knots. It features a “distributed propulsion” system, with one main propeller at the tail and two at the wingtips, which Eviation says helps to reduce drag, create redundancy, and improve efficiency. The electric motors themselves are being outsourced, however. One vendor is magniX, while the other is Siemens, which will supply 260kW electric motors powered by a 900kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Siemens is also reportedly supplying the electric engines for another startup called Bye Aerospace.
Founded in 2007, Bye Aerospace is headquartered near Denver at the regional Centennial airport. Its line of eFlyers of two- and four-seat aircraft are being marketed toward flight training and air taxi services. The company says it already has nearly 300 orders for its aircraft, including 60 on order from the OSM Aviation Academy to help train a new generation of pilots on more eco-friendly electric airplanes. Check out a test flight of the eFlyer.
The eFlyer 2 successfully completed its first official flight test with a Siemens electric propulsion system in February. Bye Aerospace is also developing a solar-electric, high-altitude drone with a 45-foot wingspan. More solar-electric cars can’t be too far behind, right?
Founded in 2014, Electro.Aero out of Perth, Australia, focuses on developing a turnkey electric propulsion system for aircraft. Its LEAP system has been featured in a light sport aircraft since 2017. Its partners include Bye Aerospace and Ampaire. Like Bye Aerospace, the Alpha Electro from Pipistrel is intended primarily for pilot training, costing as little as $3 per hour in electricity to operate.
While there are quite a few startups designing and developing electric airplanes or hybrid electric aircraft, there’s obvious interest from the big corporations in the industry, as several of the companies we profiled have some heavyweights in their corner. Some corporations are taking the controls themselves. For example, Airbus is working with Rolls-Royce and Siemens on a hybrid electric proof-of-concept aircraft dubbed the E-Fan X. The program is moving on to the next phase using an aircraft that can carry more than 100 passengers. Flight tests are expected to begin as early as next year. Large commercial hybrid or all-electric airplanes are probably more than a decade away, but it’s plausible that short-range electric airplanes may be carrying passengers on short hops around the country in just a few more years, for those of us who can’t afford flying cars or jet packs.
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