A Quantum Leap in the Sky

For decades, large-scale electric propulsion has long been deemed impossible.

While the concept of fueling airplanes with electric motors is not novel (in World War II the B-29 Superfortress bomber powered its gun turrets with electric motors and airplanes since have used electrical power as a replacement for ducts and hoses of hydraulic and pneumatic systems), the concept of fully electric airplanes has remained somewhat of a fairy tale.

The chief hurdle to a battery-powered plane is the weight, range and power density of the battery. Some small attempts at electric flying have been made, but at low ranges and speeds. For comparison, the jet fuel capacity of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner is roughly 223,000 pounds, which in battery terms equates to 4.5 million pounds (LA Times). The day that batteries weigh less than liquid fuel is not near.

Wright-Brothers-First-Flight-in-1903-06
The Wright Brothers, 1903.

Over a century has transpired since the orignation of commercial aviation and flying has become an essential fixture of global business, travel, and connectivity. Every 15 years, the total miles flown has doubled, from 1 trillion miles in 1980 to an anticipated 13 trillion in 2030 (Zunnum Aero).

Low and behold, an industry that was never thought to innovate fast enough to match its dynamic growth rate is on the tip of multiple technological breakthroughs as companies race to be the first to commercialize supersonic speed, space travel and, you guessed it, the once-deemed-impossible electric and hybrid propulsion.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Earlier this year, aerospace and defense manufacturer, Boeing (BA), and Jet Blue Airways (JBLU) doubled down on the future of aviation, investing (an undisclosed amount) in Zunnum Aero, a start-up threatening to revolutionize regional aircraft travel through its hybrid-electric airplanes.

There is no doubt that this investment is a bet on the disruption of a century-year-old industry, made by two smart incumbents aspiring to be on the right side of said disruption.

zunnum aero picture
Zunnum Aero airplane

Zunnum Aero was founded in Washington three years ago by Ashish Kumar, a PhD in Mechanical and Aerospace Enginering and prior tech leader at Microsoft, Google, and Dell.

Zunnum’s pilot-optional aircraft is powered by two low-pressure ducted fans called “quiet electric propulsors,” or QEPs. The QEPs, designed for significant noise reduction, efficient flying, and high static thrust for takeoff, are powered by batteries located in the wings and complemented by a 500-kilowatt gas turbine generator. Interestingly, the gas turbine provides no thrust, just electric power for the QEPs. The turbine is only turned on when needed, resulting in a hybrid electric power train.

Without jet fuel, the wings have more design flexibility, and each wing is home to a chemistry-agnostic battery bay which holds easy-to-remove battery packs, so that battery storage can be customized per flight. The batteries will be primarily used for additional power during takeoff when energy consumption is at its peak. Attempting to corect for any potential issues, Zunnum is designing battery packs that can be easily switched at the airport if there is not enough time for charging. The company is also exploring different battery chemistries so it is not beholden to lithium-ion batteries. (Although most in the technical community would argue that lithium-ion batteries have the greatest comparative energy density, which is extremely important for aviation – more energy, lighter weight).

In fact, Zunnum has “future-proofed” its entire aircraft, so that it is not tied to any one technology and everything has been designed for eventual transition to fully electric. Solving for the long-time weight hurdle of battery-powered aircrafts, the batteries are only 12-20% of total weight. The optimization and control platform is designed with state of the art technology including real-time power management, fault detection and recovery, flight-energy optimization, and charge depleting profiles. Like everything else on the plane, the control platform is also designed for full-electrification.

Zunnum has developed propreitary algorithms to optimize range and performance. Its current range is about 700 miles, max speed 340 mph, and take-off distance 2,200 ft, all of which will improve as technology advances. Not a bad start. Zunnum will test its aircraft in early 2019 and plans to commercialize the aircraft by 2022.

The best part? The Zunnum Aero airplane will be faster (door-to-door) and cheaper for the consumer. Zunnum Aero has stated an expectation of 40-80% lower operating costs and is eager to show the world how inexpensive a flight can be when fuel isn’t costly. Zunnum further stated that these cost savings will be passed directly to the consumer and anticipates ticket prices dropping by an equivalent 40 to 80%. Because noise is reduced by about 1/3 to 1/5 that of a conventional jet fuel plane, underutilized regional airports will be reenergized and, the icing on the cake, carbon emissions from an aircraft will be lowered by up to 80%, with an aspiration of zero emission flying as technology advances. The Company has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration on creating standards for electric aircrafts.

This is a win for the planet, a win for our wallets, and a win for the technical community and aviation industry. Win-win-win-win.

Consider the following:

The advent of air travel has led to the increase of seats on a plane. In 1980, an aircraft held an average of 20 seats, in 2010, 60 seats, and today the average number of seats on an aircraft is 80 seats. Airline travel has been consolidated to a smaller number of long-haul routes at busy airports, leaving regional travelers by the wayside. Or, more quite literally, waiting on the tarmack for take-off. GE calculates that for flights under 1,000 miles, travelers spend over 70% of time on the ground.

Today, the United States is home to approximately 13,500 airports, surpassing any other nation in the world. Yet, just 140 of these airports carry over 96% of air traffic (Zunnum Aero). Communities that lack bustling, efficient airports struggle to attract investment and commercial businesses. We are faced with a transportation gap: lack of a reliable, low-cost, high-speed option for regional transport.

Zunnum Aero is about to flip regional travel upside down.

The company intends to operate its first 700-mile routes (think Portland to San Francisco) by early 2020’s and a 50-pasenger plane with a 1,000 mile range by 2030. The investment from Boeing and Jet Blue is a tremendous endorsement for Zunnum’s patented technology as well as a willingnes on behalf of at least one major airline to replace current fleets with a newer, efficient model.

Other players have more recently entered the fray, and we welcome them: Their decision validates our concept. – Zunnum Aero

There are a myriad of companies working on electric and hybrid technology. In July of 2015, Airbus flew a fully-electric two-seater plane known as the “E-Fan” across the English Channel for a duration of 37 minutes total flight time. However, the maximum speed was only 136 miles per hour. In 2017, Airbus abonded its E-Fan plans , shifting its efforts to hybrid production. The Solar Impulse 2, the first ever solar-powered plane was also fully-electric, but was only able to fly at an average speed of 47 mph and was required to fly at dangerously high levels to receive enough energy from the sun. There are a few other examples, all with varying limitations. While the electric aviation industry is still in its infancy, particulary compared with electric vehicles, it will be a race to the finish line among the bold.

The (carbon) cost of flying: 

Today, approximately 20,000 airplanes service three billion passeners each year (The New York Times). Business and relationships have become increasingly global and the advent of low-cost carriers has resulted in cheaper-than-ever plane tickets. But the increase of sky travel has come at a cost. A carbon cost.

The aviation industry accounts for approximately 2.5% of total global CO2 emissions and produced roughly 815 million tonnes of CO2 in 2016 (International Air Transport Assocation). Scientists estimate that given the industry’s rapid growth, at status quo, aviation will exhaust 1/4 of the world’s remaining 2050 budget (BBC News). This is not a pretty picture. It is also important to note that short-haul flights account for over 40% of total aviation emissions. Zunnum believes its aircraft will eliminate this entirely within twenty years.

The aviation industry has long remained absent from the United Nations (UN) climate negotiations, finally in 2016 volunteering to offset emissions after 2020. However, many environmentalists and corporate executives were not pleased with this conclusion. “Airline claims that flying will now be green are a myth. Taking a plane is the fastest and cheapest way to fry the planet and this deal won’t reduce demadn for jet fuel one drop,” states Bill Hemmings from T&E. Carbon offsets are usually viewed as an intermediary solution, as buying offsets does not change any behavior, rather attempts to compensate for carbon-intensive decisions. Carbon offsets also run the risk of “double counting”, which has severe implications as the world attempts to measure how much carbon it has “left”.

If hybrid and/or electric aviation takes off (pun intended), the implications would be tremendous.

The future of transportation:

In a not too distant future, we’ll use our smart phones to book a fully automated flying taxi that will land outside our front door – without any pilot. – Tom Enders, CEO Airbus.

As our ever-growing population squeezes into more and more global mega-cities, transportation is innovating rapidly to avoid gridlock. Not only will we fly on a hybrid or electric airplane in our lifetime, but companies of the likes of Airbus are working on inventions such as flying pop-up cars, autonomous helicopters, and “Uber air” taxis, as shown below.

airbus popup.jpg
Airbus “Pop.Up,” a conceptual autonomous flying car somewhat resembling a drone created in partnership with Audi and Italdesign. This two-seater pod has a set of wheels for ground travel, but can also hang under a quadcopter, connect to other pods to form a train, and fit through a hyperloop tube. Currently, the pod can travel 81 miles in the sky and 31 miles on the ground before it needs to be recharged. Production timeline, however, is still TBD.
Airbus Vahana.jpg
Airbus “Vahana,” an autonomous flying Uber which retracts like a motorcycle and seats one passenger. Vahana does not need a pilot nor a runway. Airbus’ aspiration is to commercialize the first certified passenger aircraft without a pilot. Vahana’s 20-foot-wide prototype rose 16 feet off the ground for 53 seconds during its first test flight in Oregon three months ago, a great success for the company whose concept existed on a napkin just two years ago. Airbus hopes it will have a flying Vahanas in market by 2020.

Transportation as we know it has forever changed.


Featured Photo Credit: Zunnum Aero

4 thoughts on “A Quantum Leap in the Sky

  1. This is very cool! I was just thinking about how if we solved the flight carbon problem, we could solve the rest since it’s one of the hardest. It’s like you read my mind. Hope you’re doing well!

    Cheers

    >

    Like

  2. Uber Air claims that within five years, they will have electric air vehicles capable of providing the same trip via air at the same cost as the current Uber X….now that would be something!!!

    Like

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