A great deal of progress has been made in technology for electric aircraft, boosting prospects for a new era in commuting believed to be coming between 2023 and 2026.
A fully electric small aircraft from Rolls-Royce has broken two world speed records, demonstrating the viability of the aircraft for fast, short-distance transportation.
Rolls-Royce is partnering with aerospace companies to develop airplanes and vehicles powered by its electric propulsion systems.
In autumn 2021, the company’s single-seat, electric-powered propeller plane, Spirit of Innovation, smashed the zero-emission speed record, hitting an average of 555.9 kph over 3 km. The average speed broke the existing record by 213.04 kph.
The plane also flew at a record average speed of 532.1 kph over 15 km, maxing out at 623 kph.
The two records were ratified in January by Federation Aeronautique Internationale, or World Air Sports Federation, which certifies aeronautical and astronautical records.
Rob Watson, head of Rolls-Royce’s electric aircraft business, says the company has built a solid foundation for realizing its vision of commercial electric aviation.
The first commercial electric aircraft will be small and designed for high-speed commuter transport. An electric aircraft is powered by one or more motors typically supplied by batteries.
Technological challenges in developing commercially viable electric aircraft include reducing the weight of core parts like batteries and motors while enhancing power. Electric planes are expected to have a cost advantage over traditional planes when traveling short distances with a limited number of passengers.
Rolls-Royce’s electric plane is equipped with a 400 kW powertrain including light, high-powered motors and inverters. The powertrain rivals that of a high-performance electric vehicle. The battery pack provides a range of about 320 km — the distance between London and Paris — on one charge. It is the world’s most energy-dense flying battery pack, according to Rolls-Royce.
The jet-engine maker plans to increase the range, working with Italian airframe maker Tecnam and Nordic regional airline Wideroe with an eye to delivering a fully electric passenger aircraft for the Nordic domestic commuter market in 2026.
Rolls-Royce also wants to produce an electric aviation propulsion system for vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles for urban transportation, setting 2025 as when it hopes makers start installing the system, according to Watson.
Japan is among target markets for the company’s electric air-transport project.
British eVTOL startup Vertical Aerospace has decided to adopt Rolls-Royce’s technology. Andrew Macmillan, Vertical Aerospace’s director of infrastructure, stresses that the use of tested and proven technology will do much to help the company bring its eVTOL aircraft into commercial service as soon as possible.
Japanese players are ramping up their presence in the budding electric air-transport market.
In 2021, Japan Airlines struck a deal that allows it to purchase or lease up to 100 eVOTL air taxis manufactured by UK-based Vertical Aerospace from leasing company Avolon.
Vertical and Japanese trading giant Marubeni have agreed to jointly market Vertical’s flagship electric aircraft in Japan. Marubeni has also settled on a conditional preorder option of up to 200 Vertical aircraft.
Rolls-Royce’s Watson says Japan is a good market and business environment for electric air-mobility systems. Like Scandinavia, where the company plans to launch the first commercial electric aircraft, Japan has many remote islands, he noted, adding that solid demand for urban mobility provides a great opportunity.
Market research on urban air mobility by Rolls-Royce and others has estimated that over 160,000 commercial electric aircraft will be flying above the world’s cities by 2050.
The Asia-Pacific region will account for just over half of the new sector in terms of aircraft. The number of aircraft operating in Japan will grow to 630 in 2030, 4,500 in 2040 and 16,400 in 2050 — or about 10% of the global total — according to the study.
Rolls-Royce plans to expand cooperation with its Japanese partners. Watson says the company has been building partnerships with Japanese companies including IHI and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in the aerospace sector. The British company has a strong interest in forging partnerships with players in Japan, which has competitive electrification technology, according to Watson.
Rolls-Royce broke speed records for conventional-engine powered aircraft in the early 1930s at the dawn of the aircraft industry. As its aircraft engine business faces headwinds from the COVID-19 pandemic and the global carbon-free trend, Rolls-Royce is racing to restructure its product line and finances, with a fully electric-aircraft unit poised to contribute new revenue and profit.
Credit: Nikkei Asia