The promise of hybrid-electric propulsion for regional transport
Electric and hybrid electric technologies have taken years to reach maturity, but are finally making a significant impact in the automotive space. Disruptors like Tesla and innovation from automotive mainstays like Toyota, Nissan, and the Big 3 American manufacturers have proven the viability and benefits of reducing our reliance combustion-powered vehicles. Thanks in part to advances in battery and electric motor technologies pioneered in the automotive space, aviation is now taking a serious look at the role of electric and electric hybrid propulsion as part of a greener and more cost-efficient mode of propulsion for smaller aircraft.
Broadly speaking, applying electric propulsion to aircraft is taking two paths – hybrid electric, and pure electric. Hybrid electric uses a conventional jet turbine in an APU-like configuration to charge batteries used to power electricity driven ducted fans. Pure electric is a far more limited use case, relying on battery stores self-sufficient for flight operations with little or no in-air recharging. The latter case is likely only suitable for very small aircraft on very short flights barring significant advances in battery technology.
Hybrid electric, however, may have broader applicability with smaller regional aircraft of up to 12 passengers. With a vast reduction in the number of moving parts, and the potential to swap out batteries between flights, the implications for aircraft maintenance and flight operations are transformative. There are significant barriers to overcome – from weight to power ratio of battery-powered craft at this scale, to the safety issues imposed by the current generation of lithium-ion batteries. But, the economic opportunities such as reducing the cost per seat mile by up to 70-80% from traditional propulsion baselines is attractive enough to warrant investment in research, development, and prototyping.
The implications for manufacturing, maintenance, engineering, and flight operations are difficult to imagine at this early stage. Certainly, an even modest adoption of electric hybrid propulsion would trigger massive changes in the adoption of lightweight carbon structures, maintenance regimes, supporting infrastructure, training procedures, and logistics methodologies that support this highly regulated industry. These changes will likely take longer to conceive, implement and refine than the development of the underlying technology itself. But the investment in time and energy seems well justified given the potential to change the cost footprint and commercial ROI for small aircraft operations. And as the technology continues to evolve, the potential to impact larger aircraft cannot be ruled out.
As a provider of maintenance and flight operations technical information management solutions for both OEMs and Operators, Flatirons Jouve will continue to be an engaged and interested participant in this potentially revolutionary change for our industry.
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