Watch this sleek electric plane ace its high-speed ground test
On September 18, an all-electric aircraft sped down a runway in Washington state, its nose wheel lifting off the ground. It didn’t take flight by intention, however. The test was performed on September and the aircraft took off from a runway in Washington state, with its nose wheel lifting off the ground.
The 57-foot-long aircraft, which its makers call Alice, is just a prototype, although a pretty slick one at that. Someday, if a production version enters service with an airline like Cape Air, the goal will be for it to be able to carry nine passengers and their bags for flights lasting about an hour or two–think distances of about 170 to 230 miles. The commuter plane will have space for two pilots at the front, but it will only be certified to fly by one person.
Other companies working on electric flight, which is one way that the industry hopes to become less carbon-intensive, are developing flying machines that don’t look like traditional aircraft. Joby Aviation’s air taxi, for example, can take off vertically and land . Alice, made by Eviation, is a lot more like a regular airplane. Here’s how it works now.
Batteries in the belly
The plane’s motors require battery power to provide the energy they need. The batteries that provide that power are located in the bottom of your plane, which is why the plane’s girth is a little larger.
Batteries can be heavy and don’t have as much energy , which is a major limitation for electric flight. The batteries on this prototype weigh a total of 8,000 pounds, and these lithium-ion cells are cylindrical, which is the same shape that some automakers, like Tesla and Rivian, use. The cargo compartment can be used for luggage and is located behind the passenger cabin.
The aircraft’s design is focused on making it capable of completing its intended mission, which is to transport commuters over short distances while utilizing battery power. Gregory Davis, the CEO and president of the company, says that building an electric aircraft is a war against weight and drag. “Our challenges are to achieve the best lift-over drag ratio .”
The aircraft has long, narrow wings, which don’t sweep backwards; wings that are lengthy and skinny are referred to as possessing a high aspect ratio. He says, “We need the most efficient wings that we can.” (For a point of comparison, take a look at the wings on an aircraft like an F-16, which is designed for performance and supersonic speeds, as opposed to efficiency.)
The plane is mostly made of carbon composite material to keep the weight down, Davis says. Davis also claims that fly-by wire makes the aircraft lighter than it would otherwise be. A non-fly-by-wire aircraft employs mechanical connections, like metal cables, to translate what the pilot does at the controls to the actual surfaces on the outside of the plane. A fly-by-wire aircraft uses computer signals to do the same, removing those cables or other physical connectors.
Props in the back
At the rear of the aircraft, there are two electric motors which spin two propellers. Those motors are made by a company called magniX; an airline, Harbour Air, has also used a magniX motor to power a converted electric seaplane.
In the case of the Alice aircraft, the power units in the back “can produce 650 kilowatts of power per side, so 1.3 megawatts of power for the aircraft during takeoff, which is great,” Davis says.
At the moment, there is a gap between where the company expects to be with its production-model aircraft range and the prototype that will soon take flight. He says that the batteries are not yet ready for prime time. “Battery technology is, perhaps not surprising, the greatest challenge in electric aviation.” The hope for the industry is that the development of the Alice aircraft will continue, and that the industry–electric ground vehicles, and electric aircraft–will keep innovating.
He describes this battery situation as “a challenge to the entire industry.” He says the prototype aircraft is useful “for demonstrating that technology works together .”
Eviation and its Alice aircraft aren’t the only ones who are exploring this frontier. Companies like Beta Technologies and Joby Aviation are flying electric air taxis that are designed to take off and land like helicopters, although in recent flights with Air Force pilots at the controls, or a multi-leg journey to Arkansas, Beta’s demonstrator took off and landed conventionally. Others include Archer and Wisk. Finally, Kittyhawk was working on a one-person plane known as Heaviside, but just announced on September 21 that they would be shutting down the company.
And in related news, a company called Heart Aerospace is working on a hybrid-electric aircraft, the ES-30. The Air Current aviation website has more on why Heart recently pivoted away from an all-electric smaller craft to a larger, 30-seat machine that also has turbo-generators on board.
For Eviation’s Davis, he compares their current stage of development to NASA’s Mercury program, which saw the first American in a sub-orbital flight in 1961, eight years before the moon landing of Apollo 11. “What we’re doing with Alice is like Alan Shepard going to space on a Redstone [rocket] – it’s showing us that we can do this,” he said. “Where we are headed in terms making electric aviation part our world–something our children will fly on, and we won’t think twice about-that’s where we are heading. We must show that we are capable of it.
Watch this high-speed taxi test.
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