First of all a Happy New Year to everyone! I am just back from a winter holiday in Mexico and I am sat in an airport wondering what would I should write about. Of course every aspect of air travel involves CPS whether it is the aircraft themselves, the Air Traffic Management Systems, the baggage handling systems, and airport services used by passengers. However, were you aware that British Airways is using remote controlled tugs to push back aircraft? The electric-powered Mototoks are being used at Heathrow Terminal 5 and have already moved 100,000 passengers.
So what could be the next “big thing” in the industry. While not a new concept (I remember looking at prototype electric two seater aircraft around 10 years ago) there is now a buzz in the industry on whether the future will see much larger electric aircraft for short haul flights. Here there is some promise in developing battery-propelled aircraft that can allow flights under two hours. This would certainly cut emissions and noise which are both key concerns in the aircraft industry. With the increasing debate on pollution, for instance whether diesel cars should be banned in cities, it is no surprise that the industry is looking for new ideas. As we have seen with the car industry the disruptions in technology are coming from new companies such as Tesla with the development of electric cars and trucks. This is driving much higher battery capacities while at the same time lowering the cost of battery technologies. So if it is possible to build an electric lorry that has an 800km range, the question is can the same be done for aircraft?
Airbus via VoltAir are working on the E-Fan aircraft, a two seat trainer, with LiPo batteries in the wings feeding 20kW electric fans. The goal is a 40-minute flight which would give the aircraft a range of 100km. However, this is far from an aircraft that could be used for mass transportation of passengers. It is no surprise, however, that again the disruptive vision of the future is being pursued by non-traditionally companies. EasyJet, for instance is collaborating with Wright Electric to develop and build a 220 seater electric short haul aircraft that could be flying in the next decade. According to the figures this would be 50 per cent quieter and 10 per cent cheaper for airlines to buy and operate than a traditional aircraft. The maximum range of this though is only 335 miles (539km), so London to Paris is possible, but a flight across Europe is still a dream.
So what are the challenges?
Commercial success depends on a number of factors. Foremost there is a need to improve battery technology and improve aerodynamic efficiency to enable much longer flights to make an electric aircraft a practical proposition. Notably as aircraft are very expensive they are operated in the air as much as possible to generate revenue. A short haul aircraft will make several flights a day and it is not uncommon for aircraft to operate for 18 hours a day. There is also a public perception challenge. Passengers are comfortable having two large jet engines under the wings. They may be less comfortable being confronted by an aircraft with many smaller electric motors attached to the wings. Finally, in order to switch from gas turbine engines to electric aircraft there is also a need for infrastructure to charge aircraft and whole new maintenance procedures. So it is likely to be some time before we “fan” off on holiday in the future!