‘Electric flight requires the entire ecosystem to follow suit’

While power plants and heavy industry are taking ever greater steps in the transition to a CO2-free sector, aviation is having a hard time. “The transition is really still in its infancy in this sector,” was the conclusion of economist Mathijs Bouman in this Nieuwsuur article on innovations in aviation. Innovations in aviation take a long time – primarily due to very strict safety requirements.

Fly differently

The best thing would be for everyone to fly less, but in the future it will also be possible to fly differently. For shorter flights, an electric battery is the most obvious solution, for long flights it is hydrogen and green kerosene.

Although a zero-emission aviation sector is still in its infancy, it does not change the fact that many places are working hard to help the sector out of that infancy. For example, Eelde Airport (Groningen) wants to be the most sustainable airport in Europe by 2030, and the Dutch Space and Aviation Center (NLR) wants to use Twente Airport as a breeding ground for sustainable aviation.

Electric flight: option for regional airports

According to Maarten Steinbuch, university professor of control technology at TU/e, electric flight is an excellent opportunity to make better use of the regional airports. “In the coming years, this form of transport will enter a completely new mobility segment at the bottom of the market. This is primarily about passenger transport. It starts at five to nine people in 2025, possibly with plug-in hybrid aircraft. Somewhere between 2030 and 2035, we are already talking about forty seats with a range of around four to five hundred kilometers. It is particularly interesting for interregional airports.”

There are currently two start-ups in the Netherlands building an electric aircraft: Maeve Aerospace from Delft and ELECTRON aviation from Teuge en Eelde. Maeve wants the first passengers to fly fully electric in 2029. Their aircraft will then transport 44 passengers over a distance of 400 kilometers.

ELECTRON wants to use the first electric air taxi in 2026. This taxi is suitable for four people and has a range of 750 kilometers. This start-up wants to install at least thirty taxi hubs across Europe in ten years, founder Josef Mouris previously told Innovation Origins.

Charging infrastructure

Steinbuch founded NRG2fly together with Jurjen de Jong and Jeroen Kroonen. The start-up wants to ensure at an early stage that battery-electric aircraft can charge up on locally produced, sustainable energy. The charging process must take place quickly and safely without overloading the power grid.

Now you may ask: why now? After all, apart from the devices from the E-flight Academy in Teuge, no electric planes fly yet. But those who ask are not thinking ahead, says Steinbuch. “If we’ve learned one thing from the development of the ecosystem around electric driving in the Netherlands, it’s that you have to think about standards for charging at an early stage.”

The idea is that larger aircraft will soon have to charge via heavy-duty charging sockets from the Megawatt Charging System (MCS) – which is also used for heavy trucks – and can charge within half an hour.

Hybrid flight as a stepping stone

Although it will probably be some time before fully electric aircraft enter our airspace, many airlines are also working on hybrid aircraft. These vehicles fly partly on fuel and partly on electricity. This certification for this is going much more smoothly, and it’s a good start to full electric flight, says Steinbuch.

“You also need charging stations for hybrid flight. NRG2fly thinks together with airports and develops software protocols. We want to give the ecosystem a push in the right direction and help shape it. Among other things, we are working on a Growth Fund project so that the government can support us, because we want to get the innovations going. The Netherlands will play a pioneering role in electric flight. At least in Europe, but preferably throughout the world.”

All the elements to take on a pioneering role are present

The Netherlands has a good knowledge infrastructure and has experience in establishing a good ecosystem. Steinbuch: “Just look at the charging infrastructure for electric driving. We quickly got that off the ground, we are in the top three in Europe.” As a third advantage, the professor mentions that there is no major aircraft manufacturer in our country, so start-ups have plenty of room. Innovations that often go much faster than in large, cumbersome companies.

NRG2fly is building a test facility at Teuge airport together with E-flight, where they are demonstrating how to organize charging infrastructure. On the ABC islands, they are helping to make the current market more sustainable in the form of hybrid aircraft together with the Royal Dutch Aerospace Center. In November, the first demonstration flights of an electric two-seater took place in Aruba.

Falcon Electric Aviation

TU/e is also working hard to get electric flight out of its infancy. In 2021, we interviewed the student team Falcon Electric Aviation. The team wants to convert existing two-seater aircraft into an electric variant. They start with the Cessna 150; a device often used to train pilots.

“We want to replace the internal combustion engine with an electric driveline. An internal combustion engine weighs around two hundred kilos. An electric motor with the same capacity weighs only twelve kilos. We can therefore use the remaining weight for batteries,” Brandon van Schaik, founder of Falcon, previously explained.

Yasmin Rettab has been team leader for the student team since last summer. She adds that when converting the Cessna, it is important that the weight and its distribution remain the same as much as possible. “For example, pilots do not need any additional certification or training for our electric model. It also makes the concept economically more attractive.”

‘Huge difference’

Miquel de Geus, engineer at Falcon, says that this is also where the biggest challenge lies. “We have to keep the difference between the classic and the electric Cessna as small as possible, while the difference between a combustion engine and an electric engine is enormous. Not only the distribution of the weight, but also, for example, the pilots’ dashboard must be identical. So we have to integrate all the different interfaces.”

Focus on the ecosystem

According to Rettab, the biggest change since the last time Innovation Origins spoke with the team is that they are not only focusing on the technology development, but also involving the entire electric flight ecosystem in their work. “We can develop a plane that flies on an electric battery, but where do you charge it up? If our end product is not part of a larger whole, it doesn’t make much sense. That is why we now focus more on collaborating with partners such as NRG2fly. We are brainstorming with them about charging.”

Within TU/e, this mutual cooperation could become much more intensive if it were up to Rettab. “The university is mainly focused on the car industry. While a lot is also happening in the airspace. There are teams working on satellite technology, drones. We are trying to form more of a community. The Eindhoven Engine does a lot for this as well, but we could really use a lot more support from the university. It is, for example, quite difficult to get in touch with the right partners.”

“This also applies to the technical side. We are students, we learn while working on the plane. It would make a huge difference if we had the support of someone with technical experience”, adds De Geus to his teammate.

If all goes according to plan, the electric Cessna will take to the air for the first time in 2024. And if all goes well with the start-ups, the device will soon be joined by other pioneers ELEKTRON 5 and Maeve 01. That an increasing variety of devices will take off within the next five years, in any case, one thing is certain. is.

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