Frost & Sullivan MI on Aviation Industry: The Silent Buzz of the All-Electric Aircraft
Aviation Industry: The Silent Buzz of the All-Electric
by Alix Leboulanger, Research Analyst – Aerospace, Defence & Security
Bookmakers’ optimistic prognostics despite the economically grey conjecture were almost
exact for the Paris Air Show 2013. On the commercial aviation side, Boeing and Airbus have
entertained spectators from the very beginning of the Paris Airshow and both companies
registered significant orders, in total 466 jets sold for Airbus ($68.7 billion total contracts)
and 442 jets for Boeing ($66.4 billion total contracts). However, the military aviation side
was less buoyant; it was more about new products launch, from systems like the C-MUSIC
from Elbit to unmanned vehicles like the P.1 HH HammerHead from Piaggio Aero, or the
nascent programs being announced such as the likely unmanned Gripen from Saab, the JAS
Gripen-E. If bookmakers were expecting major deals in the same tone as the 99 V-22s in
the US or the confirmed order for 34 NH90 TTH in France, both announced two weeks
before the airshow, unfortunately no such thing happen. Even the Russian OEMs remained
silent in spite of the dominant flight demos Su-35 and Yak 130. Undertone whisperers were
either commenting on potential A400M order, discussions dampened under the almost
monsoon like rain showers, or when the sun was back gossiping about winning contenders’
name for the Polish and French Air Force fast trainers jets replacement tender, with BAE
Systems’ Hawk AJT and Pilatus’ PC-21 as the main favourite.
What was buzzing regardless the weather was Innovation. Orders books were maybe a bit
down or lower than expected, but Innovation was still flying high in the sky, since recent
achievements have made it more credible to hard believers. If one word could qualify the
Paris Airshow 2013, it would be “electric”…
Already electric on the Bourget runaway...
Every day from noon, the show was starting to get electric with an Airbus A320 circulating
among others aircraft displayed in the static area. Safran and Honeywell indeed created
the attraction with their Electric Green Taxiing System-EGTS prototype, which could
fundamentally change aircraft taxi out process by simply adding electric engines close to
the aircraft landing gear. These engines take their energy from the auxiliary power unit and
hence enable the airplane to go autonomously from the airport gate till the runaway
without the need to engage the aircraft main engines, so without burning fuel. According
to Safran, when compared to the dual engine taxi out phase and based on an average of 25
minutes taxi out before a one-hour flight, EGTS could allow an airline company owning
hundreds of mid-carrier aircraft to gain 4% of fuel savings over a year.
Another system intended to also make airport areas greener and aircraft more
environmental friendly is the TaxiBot vehicle, jointly developed by Israel Aerospace
ParisAirshow2013:ahalftoneMarket? Industries, Airbus, TLD Group and LEOS. This system differs from EGTS as it is a diesel
electric powered tractor vehicle, half autonomous half pilot-controlled, that carries the
aircraft from the gate to the runaway. With 180 potential sales in the pipeline, TaxiBot is
planning to start its certification process by 2014 and first deliveries are expected by the
end of next year.
If both systems prove to significantly enable faster taxi outs, more aircraft manoeuvres and
fuel savings, these will lead the larger industry towards an all-electric aircraft. But why
concentrating efforts on this cutting-edge project, rather than investing in biofuels,
hydrogen or water engine developments? (fig.1)
Figure 1: The likely benefits of an all-electric aircraft
rce: Frost & Sullivan Analysis
There are two main justifications pushing in favour of the all-electric aircraft. First, it is said
to fundamentally enhance each aircraft availability rate, as systems and engines would be
more reliant, and hence with less support required. Long-paced scheduled maintenance
turnarounds and faster unscheduled overhauls means more time; and time is money for
airliners. The second advantage is also financial, with less reliance on fuel, airliners should
be less dependent on rising oil prices and so passengers travel fares could drastically
decrease. Consequently, the electric switch may be really expensive, but the promised
return of investment could be attractive enough to encourage investments towards this.
ParisAirshow2013:ahalftoneMarket? If all developments go according to the plan, then the all-electric commercial aviation
could take off by 2035-2040. Therefore, it is high time to start thinking of new electric
infrastructures for airports, electric storage areas, airplane new support in service and
power by the hour bespoke deals.
But before thinking aftermarket, how is the all-electric aircraft currently taking shape? Is it
a step-by-step process or a whole project designed from scratch? As illustrated by TaxiBot
and EGTS, revolution is made one step at the time (fig.2).
Figure 2: Main milestones to reach before getting all-electric
Source: Frost & Sullivan Analysis
As a matter of fact, among the several targets to achieve, the focus is primarily put on
replacing aircraft pneumatic and hydraulics systems to make the airplane lighter and
faster. Engineers are currently working on how electric drive can provide better efficiency
than mechanical transmissions and actuators. Furthermore, maintenance costs are
assessed to decrease as system failures will be easier to track and fix. Once this challenge is
overcome, the mid-term objectives are on one hand to make changes to the entire aircraft
architecture, such as for the Ce-Liner design from the Bauhaus Lufthart already in
conception, and on the other hand, explore and introduce new composite alloys to
continually decrease aircraft weight. The final and golden milestone will be a completely
electric power system and thrust. As soon as aircraft propulsion will become fully electric,
then steel, aluminium, (bio) fuels, heat engine and combustion will be by-gone memories
of the twentieth century.
Despite all the developments being simultaneously on-track, recent debates on lithium-ion
versus nickel-cadmium batteries give the impression that the 100% electric aircraft is not
ready to take off soon. However, if Paris Airshow spectators were willing to see an existing
all-electric airplane, there were some cutting-edge aircraft in the static display area.
ParisAirshow2013:ahalftoneMarket? ...And soon electric in the air
Cri-Cri developed by EADS Innovation Works made its first maiden flight at the Paris
Airshow in 2011, this year this four engines all-electric aerobatic plane introduced E-Fan, its
sibling. E-Fan is a light sport aircraft, all carbon made and with two-seats this time, gets
equipped with two engines and a very similar system to the Safran-Honeywell EGTS. Its
first flight is scheduled for September 2013 and it could be used as a very light training
aircraft in the near future. Earlier this year, another electric powered small aircraft,
SportStar Epos developed by the Czech companies Evektor and Rotex Electric (for the
engines) performed a twenty minutes flight in March 2013.
If E-Fan and SportStar Epos are at their early flight trials stage, they are showing the lead
for potential Boeing and Airbus NextGen electric mid-carriers. After all, the all-electric
airplane is getting closer than it initially seemed.
But airplanes are not the only aircraft getting all the electric attention, Vertical Take Off
and Landing-VTOL aircraft and UAVs are also in the target, especially at Finmeccanica, that
this year displayed as a world premier its Project Zero. After a first unmanned flight in
2011, the all-electric tilt-rotor aircraft is a step far ahead from the AW-609 tilt-rotor
helicopter, however the unique and most interesting feature of Project Zero is that when
on the ground, its rotors can be pointed into the wind to windmill and hence recharge its
electrical storage system.
One may say that E-Fan, Cricri and SportStar Epos are only unreal prototypes for an
impossible future, but actually developments and achievements made on electric systems
and structure are happening faster than expected. In overall, this is the entire development
timeframe to be revised with the aviation getting electric. As an example, Project Zero has
been developed at the speed of the light in only one year, in 2010, and was flying nearly
one year after. It is true that the program is far from being completed; however, what was
made possible in a 3 year timeframe would never have been possible ten years ago.
Regarding speeding up the process, there is another question essential to ask: Will it be
first an all-electric airplane, then all-electric helicopter and finally all-electric UAV? Or
instead, it will be a radical new aircraft type, like Project Zero? With aircraft interiors
getting more modular and aircraft more versatile, it may be conceived that Research &
Developments teams will take this opportunity to realize an-all in one change.
Next year at Farnborough, bookmakers will certainly continue their bets against Boeing,
Airbus, Embraer, Bombardier, Sukhoi and maybe COMAC big orders books, but they should
also start to make some environmental prognostics: How many all electric aircraft in
development? Which UAV will be the most electric? Is there a new generation of battery
getting reloaded thanks to tilt rotors? Which technologies and / or products will evolve and
consequently impact the all-electric aircraft? Or which helicopter will become solar like the
Solar Impulse plan?
What is certain is that the aviation market is definitely not mute, just taking a new breath.
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