Photo CNN
What Is The First Electric Commuter Airplane? Photo CNN

Are you wondering what an electric airplane is? Electric planes, like electric cars, rely on battery-generated electricity for power, rather than standard liquid jet fuel.

What is the first electric commuter airplane?

It is Alice.

The Alice is a prototype of what will eventually be a passenger plane capable of carrying around 2,500 pounds total, which equates to nine people and their luggage (just don’t pack any bricks). It’s powered by a pair of MagniX engines — that company just scooped up $74 million from NASA to develop more of them — and a hefty battery system from AVL. It has a max air speed of about 260 knots.

What is its capacity?

It boasted a range of up to 600 miles (965 km) and a capacity of up to nine passengers, making it viable for some short-haul regional airlines.

Testing time

Photo Telegraph
Photo Telegraph

For the test flight, it took off from an airport in central Washington, ascended to 3,500 feet, then landed again, for a total flight time of eight minutes. That’s just about enough to show that the aircraft can do what it’s meant to do, but it’s still a long ways to full passenger flights.

“Today’s first flight provided Eviation with invaluable data to further optimize the aircraft for commercial production. We will review the flight data to understand how the performance of the aircraft matched our models,” Eviation CEO and President Gregory Davis told TechCrunch.

This wasn’t just a big press event to show off their shiny new aircraft — it was an incredibly important validation of what had, until it left the tarmac, been an aircraft only in theory. This flight will be followed by more test flights as they explore the limits of the aircraft and how it performs under a variety of conditions.

How does it work?

The plane operates under battery technology, which makes the aircraft significantly slower than those with traditional engines. The Alice only allows for a max cruise speed of 250 nautical miles, while the average commercial airline travels around 550 and 600 miles per hour, per Flying Mag. However, in a statement to Entrepreneur, an Eviation spokesperson said, "150-250 nautical miles is sufficient for most trips today," and they are working on improving their batteries.

Eviation was founded in 2015 and has been pushing the Alice forward ever since. The company hopes to use the information gathered during Tuesday’s flight to review next steps and deliver aircrafts to customers by 2027 — though Eviation warns that plan is subject to change.

Alice’s design

Photo Bloomberg
Photo Bloomberg

Three different versions of the Alice are in protoype stages: a “commuter” variant, an executive version, and one specialized for cargo. The commuter configuration holds nine passengers and two pilots, as well as 850 pounds of cargo. The executive design has six passenger seats for a more spacious flight, and the cargo plane holds 450 cubic feet of volume.

What is Alice’s strength?

"The advantage of the Alice is that the aircraft and propulsion are future proof – they are ready to utilize the best that batteries will have to offer as time progresses," the Eviation spokesperson said. "Eviation's customers have been briefed on and are aligned with the 250 nm VFR range."

While it has limitations, Alice's first flight marks a major milestone for eco-friendly travel.

"This is history," President and CEO of Eviation Aircraft, Gregory Davis, told CNN Business." We have not seen the propulsion technology change on the aircraft since we went from the piston engine to the turbine engine. It was the 1950s that was the last time you saw an entirely new technology like this come together."

When will it be unveiled?

The aircraft is due to be officially unveiled and certified in the second half of 2023, but Eviation Aircraft already has orders and many in fact. Back in August 2021, Deutsche Post ordered 12 Eviation Alice for DHL. In April 2022, the regional company Cape Air immediately ordered 75 Alice (!), and this is despite the fact that the entire fleet of Cape Air currently consists of 108 aircraft. Well, in September 2022, GlobalX Airlines, which currently has only 7 aircraft, ordered 50 Eviation Alice for delivery in 2027. So electric planes are coming, at least as short-range planes.

The company says it expects to be working on developing an FAA-certified aircraft through 2025 followed by a year or two of flight testing before it can deliver Alices to customers. Eviation is currently targeting entering the Alice into service by 2027.

First electric airplane for pilot training

Photo CNN
Photo CNN

The Velis Electro, the world’s only electric plane fully certified in the EU and the UK, is taking off as a greener option for trainee pilots.

Manufactured in Slovenia by Pipistrel, the Velis Electro is a two-seater light aircraft designed for flight schools. The single-engine aircraft can fly up to 12,000 feet and has a maximum speed of 98 knots (113 mph). It has a flight time of around 50 minutes (plus reserve) per charge, with two batteries that take up to two hours to completely recharge.

Since it was launched in 2020, Pipistrel says it has sold around 100 of the electric planes, priced at €175,000 ($175,500).

With surging gasoline prices and increased scrutiny of the carbon footprint of air travel there is growing interest in the segment. The Green Flight Academy in northern Sweden has three Velis Electros as part of its private and commercial pilot license training programs, which use sustainably powered planes where possible.

While trainee pilots are now getting the opportunity to fly green, large aircraft have yet to be weaned off fossil fuels, and zero-carbon long-haul and cargo flight is a way off. But Tomažič is hopeful that won’t always be the case.

Why electric aviation is taking off now

Photo NBC24
Photo NBC24

The aviation sector pumped about a billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually, prepandemic, or about 3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. If left unchecked on its current fast-paced-growth trajectory, the amount of carbon from airplanes is projected to triple by 2050.

That puts the industry at odds with the net-zero carbon emissions deadline for 2050 set by the U.N. In October, most major global airlines signed on to meet that target, but the limitations of current fossil-fuel-reliant aircraft technology is a setback for such decarbonization goals.

Venkat Viswanathan, a Carnegie Mellon University mechanical engineering professor and aviation battery expert, says that electric battery power is “going to give an avenue for addressing emissions, at least for a significant portion of aviation.” Yet he adds a caveat that it alone won’t resolve the carbon crisis: “I think there has to be many other pieces—many other competing technologies—that have to be considered for the full arc of the future of aviation.”

Aviation’s reach toward clean energy is coinciding with other areas of transportation, too. “The inevitable shift that’s already happened in the automotive world, that’s happening in the maritime world, we see the same trends in aerospace,” explains Engler, of Wright.

At the same time, governments are increasingly establishing policies to usher in a greener era for aviation. Scandinavia is leading the charge: Denmark and Sweden will make all domestic flights fossil fuel-free by 2030; in Norway, it’s 2040. France and Austria, meanwhile, have recently enacted bans on some domestic short-haul flights.

In the United States, the Biden administration is also making a push for slashing emissions, with an emphasis on a clean-energy transportation sector. Yet climate activists like Charlie Cray of Greenpeace say U.S. policies “are only just starting down the runway.” Cray says that the administration has focused too much on sustainable aviation fuels and rather “needs to prioritize the introduction and adoption of electric engine technologies for shorter passenger routes and cargo aircraft.”

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