Demonstrations with e-planes in Aruba: ‘This is the future’

Why are we writing about this topic:

Aviation must become more sustainable, and electric flight is an important part of solving the puzzle.

Whoever is in the ABC islands can in the near future take the electric plane to move from island to island. Demonstration flights will take place in Aruba this week with PipiStrel Velis Electro, the electrically powered research aircraft from Royal NLR. “We want to show that electric flight is a clean, efficient and safe alternative to traditional aviation here in the islands,” said Angeline Flemming, adviser at The Dutch Caribbean Cooperation of Airports (DCCA), which organizes the event.

Each year, around 150,000 passengers travel by air between Bonaire, Curaçao and Aruba. Aviation is indispensable, but must be more efficient, affordable and sustainable. On the mainland, there are alternative means of transport such as the train to bridge short distances. On the islands, which are relatively close (ranging from about 30 to 190 kilometers), electric flight can offer a solution.

The demonstration flights in Aruba, performed with an electric two-seater, prove what is possible. The flights are part of A flight to the future: a conference organized by The Dutch Caribbean Cooperation of Airports (DCCA), which takes place from 7 to 11 November. Future sustainable aviation is central.

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“The Pipistrel flights are a highlight of the event,” says Flemming. “We want to show everyone that it is technically possible and safe to fly electric.” Although the demonstrations are held with an electric two-seater, it is ultimately intended to use 9 and 19 seats.

According to Flemming, the islands are ideal for innovation in aviation. “We have been investigating how to implement electric flight here for some time and are working on various pilot projects and studies. There is a strong connection between the islands, both economically, culturally and socially. This ensures that the development proceeds smoothly.”

And there are several reasons why the islands are suitable for electric flight. For example, a lot of green energy can be generated from the sun and wind, which are abundant on the islands. The second largest solar park is found at the airport in Aruba, where a total of between 5000 and 6000 MWh of electricity is produced annually.

Shorter distances

“The ABC Islands are definitely a fantastic application area,” says Martin Nagelsmit, Head of the Department of Environment and Policy Support at the Royal Netherlands Aerospace Center. Together with the International Aviation Consultancy NACO, NLR has carried out a study of electric flight, Masterplan Electric Flight, on behalf of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (IenW). Among other things, it zooms in on the feasibility of electric flight between the islands.

“Because of the weight of the batteries, you are tied to smaller aircraft and shorter distances with electric flight,” he explains. “In the Netherlands we have a train connection or people take an electric car. On the islands, electric flight is a more sustainable but ultimately cheaper option compared to traditional flight based on fossil fuels. Electric aircraft require less maintenance. Furthermore, electricity is cheaper than petroleum.

Consumption and costs

However, there are several challenges to overcome. In addition to giving presentations and conducting demonstration flights during the event, NLR is therefore investigating Pipistrel’s performance in a hot climate in conjunction with the Living Lab Electric Flight in Aruba.

Nagelsmit: “We want to see how the aircraft’s battery behaves in warmer conditions. This allows us to accurately predict how flights will look in the future, and we gain insight into energy consumption and costs. In addition to technical challenges surrounding the electric flight itself, the ground infrastructure must also be put in place, such as charging points for aircraft.”

Longer distances

Electric flight is less suitable for longer distances, for example for flights from Aruba to countries outside the ABC region. However, there are sustainable alternatives. “Flying on hydrogen or a sustainable fuel is suitable for these distances,” says Nagelsmit.

The role of government

The Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management will also be present with a delegation during the event in Aruba. Marieke Smit, Sustainable Aviation program manager at IenW: “We are very excited about this initiative in the Caribbean Netherlands and wholeheartedly support the development and implementation of electric flight.”

In line with Flemming, Smit also sees the demonstration flights as a milestone. “When people talk about sustainable aviation, they often paint a picture of the future. These electric demonstration flights show that sustainable flight is a reality. We all need to make deals to make it happen, shouldn’t it be possible to fly electric between the islands within a few years? We will put our shoulders to the wheel together.”

Together with the Master Plan, the demonstrations are important for achieving the goal that the various governments and sector parties have in mind: emission-free aviation. Smit: “As a government, we can contribute to accelerating development. For example, by making testing and experimentation easier, the first steps have already been taken. In addition, IenW is engaged in knowledge building and exchange of expertise, for example on certification. There are also subsidies for this, also in a European context. And finally, the government can play a facilitating role in the necessary adaptations of the infrastructure that must be made at the airports.”

In addition, IenW works closely with the Ministry of Economy and Climate when it comes to the aircraft manufacturing industry. “Emission-free aviation also contributes to earning capacity and a better economy.”

The Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, the authorities of the Caribbean islands, the airports of the Caribbean islands and the Dutch Association of Airports also signed a memorandum of understanding during the event. It sets out the intention for more cooperation between the parties to fly emission-free between the islands, for example through the preparation of a strategic plan and the establishment of an innovation centre.

High expectations

The electrically powered aircraft will be operational on the ABC islands within ten years, Flemming expects. “The exact timing is yet to be seen, but given the rapid progress we are making, I have high expectations.”

“The government, aircraft manufacturers, scientists: everyone is on the same page to make aviation more sustainable,” concludes Nagelsmit. “In any case, the demonstration flights are a step in the right direction to achieve that.”

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