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Where's My Electric Airplane?

"By a show of hands, how many people flew here today in an electric aircraft?" asked Brien Seeley, president of the CAFE Foundation, as he welcomed attendees to the third annual Electric Aircraft Symposium last year in San Carlos, California. It was a rhetorical question, of course—no hands went up. He continued, "Well, we're here to change that."

Electric aircraft? Who would want one? I would!

For one thing, at the current nationwide average cost of electricity (about $0.12 per kilowatt-hour), the energy cost for a small, 2-place electric airplane could be less than $10 per hour. That's compared with at least $30 per hour for a comparable airplane with a gasoline engine. Better yet, electric motors have a minimum of moving parts, so inspecting them would be simple and few parts would need regular replacement, keeping maintenance costs low. Battery replacement would be expensive, but if better energy storage systems such as ultracapacitors become available, those costs would go way down. Estimates vary, but it's a good bet that propulsion-system maintenance would cost far less than the current $30,000 every 2,000 hours or so.

There are also obvious benefits for the environment. Regardless of your position on anthropogenic global warming, it's hard to argue against reducing our dependence on petroleum. With electric propulsion, you could fly with zero emissions and, depending on your source of electricity, a negligible carbon footprint.

How about noise? The primary complaint leveled against small aircraft is that they're noisy. This simple fact is among the greatest threats to our nation's general aviation airports. Electric motors produce far less noise than internal combusion engines. Admittedly, you would still have comparable propeller noise, but improved designs and avoiding trans-sonic tip speeds could greatly reduce a propeller's noise footprint. This would make for an airplane that's friendlier not only to the environment but also to the neighbors.

There would be performance advantages too. Electric motors develop the same power regardless of air density, so density altitude would have a far smaller effect on aircraft performance. There are still aerodynamic effects, but overall, you'd be better off with an electric motor swinging your prop. What's more, you wouldn't have to fiddle with fuel mixture or worry about blowing up your engine by mismanaging a turbocharger when changing altitude.

The presenters at last year's symposium covered topics like these and more, including climate change, battery technology, photovoltaic cells, motors and motor controllers, and even bird flight. It was fascinating. Brien Seeley also used the occasion to announce the CAFE Foundation's Green Flight Challenge, a competition to develop practical, low-emissions, energy-efficient aircraft meeting certain performance goals over a test course. The competition will be held at California's Sonoma County Airport in July of year. I'll be there!

The big challenge for these teams will be energy storage. Few existing electric aircraft have more than an hour's endurance, and with current battery systems, recharging times are at least several hours. It might seem that practical electric flight is still a long way off, but in my opinion, it's closer than one might think. Even with the current technology, it's possible to build an electric, light-sport airplane that allows short, local flights, such as aerobatic routines, at least once a day.

So how is that practical? It depends on your reasons for flying. If flying is primarily a mode of transportation, it might be a while before electric aircraft can meet your needs. If you're like me, though, and you just want to fly more, even the current technology holds the promise of safe, affordable, flying every day that conditions allow. I think this could have an enormously positive effect on general aviation. The success of light-sport aircraft over the last few years has demonstrated that there's strong interest in flying simply for the joy of it. In fact, I wonder how many people take up flying primarily as a form of transportation. If anyone has any data on this, I'd love to hear about it, but I imagine it's quite a small percentage. I suspect that most pilots share my perspective that it's all about the flying.

Tomorrow, I'll attend the fourth annual Electric Aircraft Symposium in Rhonert Park, California. It's probably too much to expect, but I'm still hoping someone will be able to answer my one burning question:

"Where's my electric airplane?"

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Comments on Where's My Electric Airplane? Leave a Comment

April 30, 2010

Bill Tuthill @ 3:23 pm #

All you need to do is find a Nissan Leaf and steal, umm… requisition (!) the battery pack. Or perhaps it will be sold separately for around $12K. They say Nissan has a substantial lead in Li-ion battery technology.

May 1, 2010

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