(graphic: Zunum Aero)
Fri 28 Apr 2017 – US carrier JetBlue and Boeing are to back start-up Zunum Aero, which is developing regional hybrid-electric aircraft that could be flying as early as the 2020s. Hybrid aircraft could revolutionise the regional airline market, say the partners, by bringing about cheaper, faster and more environmentally-friendly air travel between regional airports. Both Boeing and Airbus are already working on the concept themselves but the technology breakthrough is dependent on major advances in battery power, as well as aircraft and engine design. Initially, Zunum is planning a small capacity aircraft with a range of 700 miles but by 2030 it expects to be producing aircraft accommodating up to 50 passengers and capable of flying over 1,000 miles. Another US start-up, Wright Electric, also has ambitions to come up with an electric passenger aircraft within the next 10 years and is being supported by UK budget airline easyJet.
Zunum says there is a network of over 5,000 underutilised regional and general aviation airports in the United States alone, and using hybrid-electric aircraft would enable “a golden era of fast and affordable electric air travel, reversing the 70-year consolidation of air services.” It believes a regional electric air network will offer a fast, flexible and affordable alternative to busy highways and high-speed rail, operating point-to-point and as feeders to hub airports.
It claims the impact of its hybrid-electric aircraft on door-to-door travel times on busy corridors could be a reduction of 40%, and by as much as 80% on less trafficked routes; much lower operating costs, enabling fares 40-80% below current prices; 80% lower emissions, dropping to zero over time as battery densities improve; and a 75% drop in community noise, opening up all-hours access to smaller airports.
Three years into development, the company has already multiple patented technologies in place. It says it has an experienced, multidisciplinary team across aircraft, aircraft engines and electric vehicles disciplines working on the project, including leaders of two flying electric vehicle programmes and the leader of a NASA-funded programme on drives for electric airliners. The team has also been engaged with the FAA since 2014 to drive development of certification standards for electric aircraft.
With a PhD in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Cornell University, Zunum Aero’s founder and CEO, Ashish Kumar, spent his early career as Professor of Engineering at Brown University and as research fellow at Sandia National Laboratories. He has a working background with Microsoft, Google, Dell and McKinsey, before helping to launch aviation electronics marketplace Aeroxchange.
“The shift of the industry to large aircraft and long ranges driven by gas turbines has concentrated almost all air traffic to just 2% of our airports, creating a massive transport gap over regional distances where there is no high-speed alternative,” said Kumar. “As a result, door-to-door times for most journeys are no better than they were 50 years ago.
“Hybrid propulsion is an industry-changing solution, enabling mid-sized aircraft on regional routes to have better cost efficiencies than airlines.”
The venture is being backed by JetBlue Technology Ventures, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the airline that was set up last year to invest in and partner with early stage start-ups “at the intersection of technology, travel and hospitality to improve the entire travel experience.”
Said its President, Bonny Simi, who is now on Zunum’s Advisory Board: “Our goal is to be part of a disruptive force rather than the one being disrupted and we seek new technologies that look to change the game. As a company that is also deeply committed to innovation in sustainable travel, we believe that Zunum and its quiet, environmentally-friendly aircraft will light up a vast network of underutilised airports and reinvent regional travel.”
Boeing’s innovation cell, Boeing HorizonX, said it was investing because it believes Zunum was leading the market in hybrid-electric development.
“This technology and customer approach has the potential to transform the market for small, short-haul aircraft that can use smaller regional airports,” commented its Vice President, Steve Nordlund.
Warren Christie, JetBlue’s SVP Safety, Security and Training, and Logan Jones, Managing Director of Boeing HorizonX, have joined the Board of Zunum.
Just a year old, Wright Electric has not as yet managed to attract the same level of industry investment and backing but has received support from UK-based budget airline easyJet.
“Easyjet has had discussions with Wright Electric and is actively providing an airline operator's perspective on the development of this exciting technology,” the airline told the BBC.
It is planning a much bigger aircraft than Zunum, capable of carrying 150 passengers, but with a shorter range of 300 miles, although how the aircraft will be powered is dependent on advances in battery technology, says Wright. If slower than anticipated then initially a hybrid-electric version would be the result rather than all-electric.
The company said it has hired a team previously funded by NASA to investigate the potential for electric planes that puts it ahead of the competition. Co-founder Jeff Engler gave a presentation last month to potential investors at Y Combinator’s Demo Day.
The company has a goal for every short flight to be electric within 20 years, but a report in the Independent newspaper quotes an airline pilot who said all-electric short flights by 2037 was “fanciful”.
Meanwhile, Aviation Week magazine reports that as a result of rapid progress in electric propulsion, Airbus has dropped plans to produce the E-Fan family of light aircraft in favour of a larger and more powerful aircraft called E-Fan X, which could be flying in the next three years. Airbus and Siemens signed a collaboration agreement in April 2016 to demonstrate the feasibility of hybrid-electric propulsion by 2020, with their sights set on developing a commercial aircraft with less than 100 seats that could enter service by 2030.
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