The race to electric flight has begun

helmet with a runway in the reflection - E.ON
Posted 19/04/2016 by E.ON

The 21st century feels like a bit of a letdown so far. The Jetsons promised us jetpacks, robot butlers and electric hover boards. Where are they?

Well, we’re not whizzing around in our own environmentally friendly flying machines just yet, but they’re not as far away as you might think. In fact, electric flying machines have actually been around for a while – but it’s not until recently that they’ve become a real commercial possibility, thanks to some very exciting developments in energy storage.

The first electric flying machine

It all began in France.

The first electric flying machine was invented by Gaston Tissandiar, an adventurer and renaissance man, skilled in the ways of chemistry, inventing, aviation and meteorology. He was also a bit of a daredevil, and escaped a besieged Paris by hot air balloon. 

Back In 1883 –20 years before the first plane was even invented – he decided to attach a Siemens electric motor to an air ship, thus kick-starting the race to electric flight.

first flying machine in France 1800s - E.ON

Introducing: battery-powered blimps

Gaston’s prototype was quickly modified and improved with a more powerful motor, and La France was born. This giant blimp was a hefty 52m long – about 10m longer than a Boeing 737 – and was powered by a weighty 435 kg battery, but it could be steered, unlike Gaston’s version. 

Although the battery’s lifespan limited La France’s driving range to 8km in 23 minutes, the craft proved that controlled electric flight was possible.

Things were pretty quiet on the electric flight front for a while, until 1973, when Fred Militky and Heino Brditschka modified a Brditschka HB–3 motor glider. This was the first man-carrying full size aircraft to fly solely under electric power.

It looked a little closer to the airplanes we know, and achieved flights of 12-14 minutes up to an altitude of 380 metres. Not bad, but still only good for a trip down the road and back.

The early 80s ushered in big electric flight developments thanks to improvements in energy storage technology. The Sunseeker 2 is an impressive aircraft fuelled by solar energy, which is stored in highly efficient lithium polymer battery packs to help power takeoff and ascent. It’s retired now, but the team behind it are currently working on a solar and battery powered six-seat version.


Lithium batteries lead the way

Have you heard of the CAFE (Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency) foundation? They’re the San Francisco–based non–profit flight test organisation that host the annual Electric Aircraft Symposium. They teamed up with NASA in 2008 to jointly host a series of aviation challenges and encourage the development of the Personal Air Vehicle. The rules are simple. Your design must:

  • Seat less than five passengers
  • Reach 150–200mph (240–320km/h) cruising speed
  • Be quiet, comfortable and reliable
  • Be able to be flown by anyone with a driver’s license
  • Be as affordable as travel by car or airliner
  • Near all–weather capability
  • Be highly fuel-efficient (able to use alternative fuels alternative fuels)
  • Have 800 miles (1,300km) range
  • Provide "door–to–door" transportation solutions, through use of small community airports that are at closer proximities to businesses and residences than large airports

Our favourite competition entries include the amazing–looking Moller M400 Skycar:

The Martin Jetpack:

Watch the video

And the Puffin. This electric personal aircraft is (theoretically) capable of whizzing a single person through the air at 150mph for around 50 miles using lithium-iron-phosphate battery technology. It takes off like a helicopter, tips forward and flies like a plane, and is 100% electric. NASA made a scaled down version, but for now, the Puffin remains a design.

electric personal aircraft, the Puffin - E.ON

To infinity…

Well, Calais. That’s how far Airbus’ lithium battery–powered E–Fan flew in 2015.

On 9 July 2015, the E–Fan crossed the English Channel. This wasn’t a first – the MacCready Solar Challenger made the journey in 1981, but E–Fan was the "first all–electric two–engine aircraft" to make the crossing.

Expect the E–Fan 2.0 to go into production by 2017 – with plans for development of a commercial lithium battery-powered aircraft in the “near future”.

e-fan aircraft - E.ON

There’s those lithium batteries again. In fact, lithium-ion batteries are enjoying increasing popularity due to their flexibly, modular size, efficiency, simplicity and scalability. And it’s not just aircraft and phones.

We at E.ON are so excited about their versatility and potential that we’ve partnered with Samsung and their battery know-how to develop some flexible energy storage solutions.

And beyond: the future of electric planes

So, does this mean commercially available jet packs, battery powered homes, and long–haul electric flights are closer than we think?

Elon Musk – CEO of Tesla – has big ideas. He predicts that as soon as batteries become capable of producing 400 watt–hours per kilogram, then electric transcontinental aircraft becomes a certainty. In fact, only last month, he revealed that convenient, electric powered air travel was his “next big idea”.

Meanwhile, a US start up is looking for investors to fund the TriFan 600 vertical take–off and landing business aircraft, which could be ready in just three years.   

UFO footage - E.ON

This ‘UFO’ is actually Moller's XM–2 – one of his earlier attempts at electric flight.

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