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There's My Electric Airplane!

"How many pilots do we have here tonight?" I asked an after-dinner breakout session at the CAFE Foundation's Fourth Annual Electric Aircraft Symposium. Nearly every hand went up.

"OK, not surprising," I chuckled and continued. "Now how many of you decided to learn to fly because you wanted a form of transportation—to get from point A to point B?" Only one person raised his hand. "And how many of you learned to fly because you were bitten by the flying bug and you absolutely had to do it come hell or high water?" Every pilot but one raised a hand.

That was a very revealing answer to the question I raised in last week's post. Admittedly, it wasn't a statistically valid poll, and as one of the attendees later pointed out to me, general aviation tends to select for people who first and foremost love to fly. If small airplanes were as accessible as cars, the poll results might have been very different. Still, I suspect that there are many more people who dream of flying than actually pursue it.

This year's symposium made a strong case for revolutionizing transportation through electric flight. The potential safety, reliability, quiet, and cost effectiveness of electric aircraft could make them a practical and accessible form of transportation comparable to today's cars. The presenters updated us on the advances and challenges in the various technologies required to make this a reality, including airframe and propeller design, materials science, solar power, and automation. Also discussed were advances in fossil fuel/electric hybrid drive systems, short takeoff and landing technologies, and proposals for flying cars. It was all just as fascinating as last year's symposium.

From what we learned about the state of the technology, however, it seemed to me that electric aircraft for transportation are still several years away. The limited capacity of current energy storage systems limits the endurance of a typical pure-electric aircraft to less than an hour. Their recharge times also limit the number of legs one can practically fly in a day. As I mentioned last week, though, if you just want to go flying for a half-hour a day, these aircraft are possible today. Short-endurance electric motor-gliders, for example, are available now. Comfortable, side-by-side, two-place, electric light sport aircraft (LSA) with similar range are on their way.

"I want to see us revolutionize boring holes in the sky," I told the breakout session. "We can do that before we'll be able to revolutionize transportation." Several people responded with interesting comments. It was pointed out that Chinese aircraft manufacturer Yuneec is likely to be the first to offer a production electric airplane with their glider-like E430 LSA, which promises 2-hour endurance at a leisurely 52 knots. Another comment described the effect that electric propulsion had on radio-controlled model aircraft. Today, 90% of RC aircraft are electrically powered, whereas just a few years ago, 90% used gasoline engines. During that same period, the number of people flying RC aircraft increased by a factor of 5, presumably because people found the simplicity and affordability of electric motors sufficiently compelling. Might a similar trend be possible with real aircraft?

For me personally, the threshold of utility for an electric airplane is "$100 hamburger" capability: enough endurance at a reasonable speed for two people to fly about 3 hours round-trip just for the fun of it. Oh, and I want my $100 hamburger for about $25. This is looking possible in the next few years.

So I suppose I got a partial answer to my burning question, "Where's my electric airplane"? It's just over the horizon.

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