The challenges for fully-electric engines on airliners, of course, are huge. Yes, there are already such engines on small aircraft, but enabling a two-seater to travel a couple of hundred miles is significantly easier than flying a Dreamliner half-way around the world with electric powerplants.
As with the early days of aviation, it is happening in small steps, but happen it will. Already there are aircraft being planned for regional airline operations during the early 2020s. At the recent Paris Air Show, Eviation announced that its all-electric aircraft, Alice, which is designed to take nine passengers up to 650 miles at a cruise speed of 240 knots, had found a launch customer in US regional carrier, Cape Air.
The Hyannis-based operator predominantly uses Cessna 402Cs to fly services in the US northeast including Cape Cod and a hub in Boston, plus networks in the Midwest (St Louis hub), Montana (Billings hub) and the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands). How many Eviation Alices the airline will take was not confirmed by the manufacturer, but such a network makes Cape Air an ideal launch customer. If all goes through according to plan, it will certainly be looked on as a landmark deal.
Another landmark deal came from Rolls-Royce, which announced a deal which on completion – planned for late 2019 – will result in the acquisition of Siemens’ eAircraft business. The aero engine OEM says the move “will accelerate the delivery of our electrification strategy and boost our ambition to play a major role in the ‘third era’ of aviation”.
The two companies have already been working together, and in partnership with Airbus, on the E-Fan X technology demonstrator project. This is an important stepping stone towards the all-electric aircraft as the flying demonstrator sees one of the four engines on a 100-seat regional jet (an Avro RJ100) being replaced with a hybrid-electric propulsion system.
The eAircraft business which Rolls-Royce is buying has bases in Germany and Hungary. It employs around 180 highly qualified personnel who have been developing a range of all-electric and hybrid electric propulsion solutions for aviation.
According to Paul Stein, Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer, “The electrification of flight is just one part of Rolls-Royce’s commitment to making aviation more sustainable: we are continuing to increase the fuel efficiency of our gas turbines; encouraging the development of environmentally friendly and sustainable aviation fuels; and pursuing the electrification of aviation.”
Stein also highlighted the step-by-step approach to achieving all-electric engines. “We believe that pure electric, or all-electric, propulsion will power smaller aircraft in the foreseeable future, while larger aircraft will rely upon hybrid electric solutions that combine electrification with evolutions of the gas turbine,” he declared.
The competitors, of course, will respond, but the Siemens eAircraft acquisition will certainly give Rolls-Royce a strong position from which to launch key products in the not-too-distant future.