Electric Aircraft: Ready, Set, Unplug!

Eco green energy batteryMuch as electric vehicles (EVs) once were in the automotive industry, electric planes have long been on the fringe of aviation. But recent developments are drawing new attention to electric aircraft and their potential for mainstream adoption.

Recent electric flights

Electric aviation trailblazers around the world have announced recent successful — and even record-breaking — flights.

  • Last spring, an Airbus electric plane called the E-Fan took its first public test flight. The E-Fan is a composite two-seater plane that has two 250-volt lithium-ion polymer batteries in its wings. The batteries deliver 60 kilowatts of power to the plane’s electric motors, giving the plant about 45 minutes of flying time.
  • In October, China’s first electric aircraft passed airworthiness tests and flew its initial test flight. The aircraft, a two-seater, is expected to be used in training and sightseeing.
  • Last year, in the U.S., Chip Yates set world speed records for his electric aircraft, the Long-ESA, and even surpassed the recorded speeds of the gas-powered Cessna 172 and 182 and Cirrus SR22-G2 (both of which are much more expensive).

Sustainability spurs electric research

Perhaps not surprisingly, environmental concerns are a key driver of electric aircraft research. Airbus’s investment in electric flight, for example, is part of an initiative to meet the EU’s Flightpath 2050 emissions and noise-reduction goals. Electric planes such as the E-Fan are quieter on takeoff and landing and emit no carbon dioxide during flight. They also vibrate far less than standard fossil fuel-powered airplanes.

The E-Fan is only the first in a series of aircraft that Airbus plans to develop. Airbus hopes to begin selling the E-Fan 2.0 in late 2017, targeting the pilot training market. That plane is expected to have a two-hour flight range, two to four seats, and in-flight battery recharging.

While electric aviation pioneers still have a few hurdles to overcome, they are working toward making electric flight mainstream. Just as EVs have gained a degree of consumer and business acceptance, electric planes should be able to find their niche, especially among private owners who are drawn to their cost savings and environmental benefits.

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