By using electric and hybrid forms of propulsion, very different-looking aircraft may end up taking to the sky
WHEN Didier Esteyne, an Airbus test pilot, flew a small two-seat electrically powered aircraft called the E-Fan across the English Channel in July, the giant European aerospace group was keen to point out the journey was not a gimmick. Indeed, Airbus is serious enough about electric flight to want to put the E-Fan into production as a pilot-training aircraft. It will go on sale towards the end of 2017 to be followed by a four-seat version.
Airbus is not alone in thinking about making much bigger electric and hybrid aircraft to carry passengers. Just as in cars, electrical propulsion offers a number of advantages over piston and jet engines. Modern, digitally controlled electric motors supply lots of torque, a rotational force which is as good at turning propellers and fan blades as it is wheels. Electric power is also quiet, clean and highly reliable, with fewer engine parts to wear or break.
Batteries, it is true, do not provide the range many would like: lithium-ion ones allow the E-Fan to fly for about an hour with a 30-minute reserve. That may be fine for a flying lesson, but not for a passenger airliner. Batteries, though, are steadily improving and, because aircraft have long service lives (the Boeing 747 first flew in 1969), aerospace engineers work on projects set well into the future.
What really excites them about electric propulsion is that it provides the opportunity to build radically different aircraft, like the Airbus E-Thrust concept illustrated above. The idea is that instead of hanging big and heavy jet engines below the wing, a greater number of small and lighter electrically driven fans or propellers could instead be incorporated into other areas of an aircraft. Doing this with lots of small conventional engines would be complicated and would add a lot of weight. But electric motors make the concept, called distributed electric propulsion (DEP), feasible. The advantage of distributing power is that it can be used to increase the airflow over the wings and thus allow an aircraft to fly more efficiently. “DEP enables a fundamental shift in how we design aircraft,” says Mark Moore, a principal investigator into electric flight at NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Virginia.
Read more: Future aircraft – Electrifying flight
The Latest on: Distributed electric propulsion
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The Latest on: Distributed electric propulsion
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