The State of Personal Electric Aircraft

As of mid-November 2016, the groundswell of electric aviation has enough entrants to form an industry. Additional research and development in battery technology, such as that being carried on at Argonne National Labs, is needed to increase battery energy density (the ratio of energy that can be delivered in watts or joules over the weight of the battery in kilograms.) Lithium-ion batteries currently deliver the maximum energy density, but research in silicon batteries may be able to double that, to hit the market in 10-20 years’ time. Here’s a roster of the electric aircraft companies making up the electric aircraft market:
• Airbus (Germany) is readying the E-fan, an all-electric ducted fan aircraft that held its demonstration flight by traversing the English channel. A hybrid-electric version is also planned. In Airbus America, Airbus has designed a self-flying prototype electric aircraft with four props, under the Vahana project.
• Aurora (Virginia), producer of the optionally piloted Centaur aircraft, is producing Lightning Strike under a DoD contract. Lightning Strike is a distributed hybrid-electric propelled ducted fan vertically taking off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The entire wing pivots to direct propulsion.(http://www.aurora.aero/lightningstrike/)
• Bye Aerospace (Colorado) – has been making solar-powered electric aircraft like the Silent Falcon (http://www.byeaerospace.com/silent-falcon/). The Silent Falcon is an unmanned aircraft, and now Bye is launching solar-powered electric trainer aircraft production. There are 200,000 small fixed-wing aircraft in the US, and most of them are more than 35 years old. Bye Aerospace is one of the companies that think that small electric aircraft will replace the old aluminum.
• E-volo (Germany) produces an 18-rotor electric copter, with a vane of rotors above the crew bus, designed to carry 2 people. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiH8As-vPkM) It has been certified to fly in Germany and is seeking EASA certification.
• Empirical Systems Aerospace, also called ESAero (California) is working with Joby Aircraft to build the NASA X-57 Maxwell, a demonstrator electric aircraft with multiple motors spread out on the fixed wings. The fuselage was delivered in August and flying tests are expected next summer.
• Joby Aircraft (California) designed the S-4, a personal electric tilt-rotor aircraft with 16 motors on two fixed wings and a split tail (http://www.jobyaviation.com/). Twelve of the motors provide vertical lift and four provide lateral speed. Props are folded back against the motor nacelle when not in use.
• Pipistrel (Slovenia)–is producing electric and battery –powered small training aircraft, the Electro. Four aircraft are scheduled to being training in central California (Reedley and Mendota) in August 2017. They will be recharged at charging stations at the airport, funded by Fresno County. The Electro has a single prop at the front of the plane.
• Zee.Aero (California) has two electric aircraft prototypes in Hollister, CA, flying and are designed to land and take off vertically as well.
• Aircraft electric motors and battery sets are in production with a number of manufacturers, including Launchpoint, Sun Duo, Metis, and Siemens.
• This list is probably not exhaustive, though the rumored inventions of Uber flying cars and Elon Musk’s flying electric cars are not founded in actual vehicles yet.
Electrically powered aircraft are gaining par with gas (avfuel) powered aircraft. Fossil fuel has a greater power density, so gas-powered aircraft have a much greater range. Operation of electric powered aircraft has reached price parity however; amortizing the greater acquisition cost and factoring in a lack of fuel and reduced maintenance puts electric aircraft at nearly par. Electric aircraft lack the safety hazard of jetfuel fires after a crash landing.
Electric aircraft innovation is currently supported by large private (Zee.Aero) or government (ESAero, Aurora) investments and considerable investment at-risk by the manufacturers named here, on the gamble that electric aircraft will either sufficiently mature; that a climate-based tax will make them comparable; and/or that fossil fuels will become too expensive. The climate-based tax is less sure of a bet than before the US election November 8th, but the other two drivers are still in play. Government policy could dry up investment in electric aircraft in the US; alternatively the end of oil dumping by Saudi Arabia could keep it going. Electric aircraft investments in Europe will continue regardless of the US election. Over the long term, small electric aircraft are needed to provide short-hop transportation in our growing mega cities, as ground traffic continues to worsen.