Why electric airplanes will change the way we move

Monday 4th December 2017

Thirteen years ago when we started Solar Impulse, electric propulsion was seen as anecdotal. Today it is part of all major development programs of the aviation industry. There is an emerging consensus that electric flight has the potential to revolutionize the way we travel and move. Being convinced of this myself and wishing to be part of this revolution, I co-founded H55, a technological spin off from Solar Impulse, developing electric propulsion solutions.

Why are we witnessing this evolution? As battery capacity has increased over the years, the potential of electric technologies thanks to its unique characteristics, is expanding. What blocks innovation is not the lack of technology, it’s our own mindset, our difficulty to trigger change and our focus on the negatives when considering new solutions and paradigms. In 2003 Solar Impulse was told that building an airplane with the wingspan of a jumbo jet, having the weight of a car was impossible. A few years later we had the first energy efficient, solar powered airplane with an unlimited endurance.

Electric propulsion has incredible advantages. It will help move aviation into a new era, with quiet, clean and more affordable airplanes. Electric motors are highly efficient, above 90% compared to 30% for combustion engines which are wasteful and have a negative environmental footprint. They react immediately by providing high torque when getting electric current. Software enables the motors to be controlled very precisely. It can therefore be used not only for propulsion, but to control the stability of the airplane. A simple electric drone that you can buy at any store, is more stable in wind and turbulence than an expensive helicopter. With this technology, we can design an aircraft able to take-off and land vertically like a small drone and fly like an airplane. Electric motors are simple and hence easy to maintain. With fewer moving parts, there is no wear, therefore making them more reliable.

Batteries have been seen as a limiting factor. This is true for high energy applications such as heavy or high-powered airplanes. But the advantages of electric propulsion are such that they compensate largely for many other applications.

H55 has electrified a small aerobatic airplane, aEro1, having an endurance of 1 hour. The flying experience is thrilling: no need to refill oil in the engine, no need to warm up the motor, no vibration, quiet environment in the cockpit and immediate torque during take-off. It’s like flying a glider with the freedom to climb like a powered airplane. For only a few dollars per hour of flight, with no nuisance for the neighbourhood….

H55’s is now working on electrifying a two-seater flight trainer with an endurance close to 2 hours, ideal for flight schools. Recharging of the battery will be done  in less than one hour, making it suitable for commercial use.

This is only the first step! Think about boarding an electric airplane on top of a building which can bring you on the other side of the city in less than 10 minutes, with no impact on the environment at a kilometer cost of a car. This is no longer science fiction. This can be done with existing technologies. The only challenge is our reluctance for change. And of course, government regulators have to embrace change and project themselves in the future to prepare the legal framework to authorize these new technologies.

H55 will be an active partner by providing electric propulsion solutions for the aviation industry, based on our 14 years of experience at Solar Impulse. We have flown more than 1200 hours over 43’000 kilometers in real operations around the world without any significant technical difficulties with a certified experimental airplane allowed to fly over major cities and land at international airports. Certification of these new solutions will be a challenge. It is one thing to build and fly a prototype with nobody on board, it is another story to make it truly safe.  A burning airplane flying over a city is definitely not acceptable and ensuring that these aircraft are totally safe is huge and should not be underestimated. That’s where H55 focuses it’s attention in making this revolution possible.