TechBite on All Electric Aircraft

Key insights and resources recorded at an IET Aerospace Technical and Professional Network seminar in January 2016.

The development of all electric aircraft is considered one of the biggest challenges and opportunities the aerospace sector is facing. Brought to the forefront by increased pressure on the development of environmentally friendly alternative fuels and power sources – due to rising fuel costs, finite oil stocks and environmental concerns – it is becoming clear that new technologies are needed to meet future emission regulations, while lowering costs, as current technologies reach their limits.

image of an airoplane surronded by clouds In addition, there is interest in another of the benefits that all electric aircraft would provide – near-silent operation.

Near-silent flight

“This change could have a major impact, permitting night flights for example,” says Dr Peter Malkin, Strategic Research Advisor at Newcastle University’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

“[These factors are] seeing the industry focus its research on developing new technologies to achieve the holy grail of an all electric aircraft,” says David Lindley, Chairman of the IET Aerospace Technical Professional Network (TPN). “It is unsure if we can ever reach the point of a truly all electric aircraft, however, the journey will help develop new technologies that will result in aircraft design that has a greater utilisation of electric systems,” he notes.

The ultimate industry goal

Experts believe that all electrical (battery powered) aircraft should remain the ultimate industry goal, as even if it is never achieved it will support the further development of hybrid electric solutions. And with technological breakthroughs in electric engines, battery power storage and solar energy harvesting, it has moved from a concept to a practical future technology.

Experts note that significant advances in many areas including continuous in-air power sources and battery energy density need to take place before all electric aircraft could become viable, but existing technologies make small and medium hybrid electric aircraft a possibility. Larger aircraft, on the other hand, will require the use of superconducting power systems.

Viable solutions

“Battery advances are being pulled through by other industries; particularly automotive. Most experts in this field see steady but not dramatic improvements in battery performance, which is likely to restrict this approach to small aircraft applications,” explains Dr Malkin. “Hybrid ‘conventional’ electric systems could be useable within a relatively short timescale as they require work to increase power densities and efficiencies.

“Superconducting power systems are now possible as new materials have finally become available. However, these require a significant amount of development as their behaviour is fundamentally different from conventional networks. Work also needs to be done on lightweight cryo-cooling systems [which will significantly reduce power loss],” he adds.

View Dr Peter Malkin’s presentation: Key Propulsion Technologies of Electric and Hybrid Electric Aircraft

In addition, there is also the challenge of changing and recharging batteries quickly.

“We will require a new infrastructure to include high-power, fast-charge stations at airports across the world,” highlights Lindley.

Inspirational projects

Clearly it is still very early days for the development of both hybrid and all electric aircraft, but several projects have been inspiring work in the area. Attempts to break records in electrically-powered flight have been taking place including Solar Impulse, a solar powered plane that’s flying around the world, and a significant part of the Clean Skies2 project has been dedicated to hybrid electric solutions.

There may still be a long way to go, but many engineers believe the potential benefits are worth their efforts, and they’re excited to see what the future will bring.

What do you think? Connect with the IET Aerospace Community and comment on these insights.

View the rest of the presentations below by visiting www.theiet.org/electric-aircraft

  • Aerospace Annual Symposium keynote – Professor Iain Gray CBE
  • Presentation of the E-Fan Program – Nicolas Fouquet
  • Superconducting AC Propulsion Motors for Hybrid Electric Aerospace – Sandy Smith
  • Electrical Machines for Aircraft Electrification – Chris Gerada
  • Interdependent Architecture and Protection Considerations for Distributed Electric Propulsion Power – Catherine Jones
  • The Evolution of Electric Propulsion in the Automotive and Motorsport Sectors – Angus Lyon

Join the discussion

Take a look at the IET Aerospace Community and get involved with the latest discussions on 5G.

Other useful IET links

From more electric to hybrid electric aircraft - a presentation by Peter Malkin taken from an IET event held in Singapore which looks at shaping the future of next generation aircraft.

Electric vehicles - the IET interviewed some of the latest players (BMW, Nissan, Peugeot and Hyundai) who are introducing electric vehicles to the consumer market.