The Startups Defining Electric Air Travel
In June, the leaders of the world’s major democracies gathered for the G7 talks in Cornwall, England. The climate crisis was high on the agenda.
Ahead of the talks, all the G7 economies signed on to a 30×30 pledge, committing to protect or conserve at least 30% of the world’s landmass and 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. Individual countries have gone further. Joe Biden’s administration has announced plans to slash emissions by 50% by 2030. The UK is hoping to make a 78% cut by 2035.
Of course, almost all of the G7 leaders took a plane to get there.
For now, that’s a problem. Commercial airliners are power-hungry. A Boeing 747 burns through one gallon of fuel every second. It adds up.
In 2018, the global aviation industry accounted for around 2.5% of total CO2 emissions. That’s more than Germany. Finding a cleaner way to travel, and a less hypocritical way to deliver leaders to global summits is becoming a priority.
Is Less Really More?
We could – and probably should – fly less. We know that it is possible. According to figures released by the Global Carbon Project, emissions from aviation fell by 60% during the pandemic.
However, as the world grows richer, it is difficult to imagine that its inhabits will be content to see less of it. Demands from countries like India and China is set to nearly double passenger volumes in the next 15 years. So if we can’t fly less, we need to find better ways to fly. NASA believes the answer is probably electric.
At the start of this year, the agency encouraged companies to apply for its “Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration”. NASA is looking for technologies that will make electric air travel convenient and economically viable – and it is prepared to use government subsidies to accelerate the process.
A Win for the Little Guys?
There are raw market incentives for innovation too. From 2009 to 2019, the global aviation industry’s revenues nearly doubled to $838 billion. UBS estimates that green aviation could rapidly grow into a $178 billion market.
The example of Tesla shows that the challenge of electric mobility can unseat established industry leaders, creating opportunities for new market entrants. The same might be true for aircraft manufacturers.
Ampaire, a US startup founded in 2016, recently announced that their hybrid “electric eel” had recently completed the longest electrically-powered flight ever made by a commercial aircraft. Not to be outdone, magniX, an Australian start-up, recently broke records by launching the world’s largest commercial all-electric plane.
If SUVs could Fly…
Unfortunately, this brings us to the technical issues surrounding the electric flight.
The largest electric plane ever to fly was not very large. A modified 9-seat Cessna Caravan 208B, magniX’s creation was only able to carry one pilot on its test flight and it only managed to stay in the air for 30 minutes.
The problem is weight.
This extra weight can be accommodated on the ground, but it makes take-off challenging. Another problem is that a fossil fuel-powered plane gets lighter as it burns fuel. A Boeing 747 on a 10-hour flight might land 120,000 kg lighter than it was on take-off.
The same is not true for battery-powered planes.
A long-term bet on short-haul
However, this disadvantage matters less on short haul-flights – and it is here that electric aircraft are expected to make real inroads in the coming decades. Short-haul journeys (less than 800 kilometres) account for almost half of all commercial flights. We have already covered how flying taxis already look set to make a splash in cities, but this market will still need larger craft.
The British carrier Easy Jet has announced a partnership with Wright Electric to develop a 186-seat electric plane by 2030.
And they are not the only ones with big plans. According to data gathered by the consultancy firm Roland Berger, there were roughly 215 electric aircraft in development at the end of 2019.
We are still some way off from stepping onto a large commercial electric jet, but the wait will probably be measured in years, not decades.
As competition continues to heat up, things are looking up for the hope of a cooler world.
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Header Image: G7 Summit 2021 in Cornwall, UK. Image via Geopolitical Monitor.