Boeing-backed aims for electric commuter plane by 2022

Posted on 12 Oct 2017 by Michael Cruickshank

A company backed by US aerospace manufacturer Boeing has announced an ambitious new timeframe for the first commuter-size electric aircraft.

An artist's impression of the electric passenger plane. Image courtesy of Zunum Aero.
An artist’s impression of the electric passenger plane. Image courtesy of Zunum Aero.

Seattle-based startup ‘Zunum Aero’, backed by both Boeing and Jet Blue, believes that the first such aircraft will be ready by as early as 2022.

Despite being small by passenger-aircraft standards, the 12 seater aircraft will be among the largest electric aircraft ever built.

Powered by two electrical propellers, the as-yet-unnamed aircraft will have a total range of around 1000 miles (1610km), making it ideal for short hops between cities.

While in the air, the craft will have a maximum airspeed of around 340 miles per hour (547km/h), and a cruising altitude of 25,000 feet (7,600 meters).

These electric motors would themselves be powered by energy stored in a number of lithium-ion batteries, similar to those found in electric cars and smartphones.

The batteries are stored in the wing of the aircraft, in a similar manner to the way traditional passenger planes carry fuel.

However, unlike normal jets which are refueled over time on the ground, the Zunum Aero planes will simply have their batteries rapidly swapped out on the ground.

The advantage of this system is that it allows for battery loads to be adjusted based on the length of the flight, adding inherent energy efficiencies.

As well, the aircraft will feature a supplementary jet-fuel engine and electrical generator, able to extend the range of the aircraft if it is required, or if the batteries run dry.

Give that battery technology is expected to improve over the lifetime of the aircraft, it also has the ability to one day completely replace the hybrid engine system with a complete electric one once the tech allows.

The company also hopes to take advantage of their aircraft’s shorter runway requirements, meaning it can fly from a much wider range of smaller airports.

This they hope will enable passengers to avoid delays and lengthy waiting times at major airports, and make up (at least somewhat) for the electric craft’s slower speed.

Nonetheless, electric (or hybrid) aircraft are still a very new field, and many other, less technologically ambitious aircraft have faced significant delays. With this in mind, the 2022 timeframe for readiness may be somewhat over-optimistic.