Could electric planes be the future of business aviation?

Pioneering

Sparking innovation: how electric planes could be the future of business aviation

The United Nation’s 9th Sustainable Development Goal focuses on Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, with an aim to improve mobile connectivity, invest in manufacturing, and find unprecedented solutions to improve broader problems such as climate change.

One notable project is a solution to all three components of the 9th Sustainable Development Goal. Project ELISE, an acronym for “Elektrisk Lufttransport i Sverige” (Electric Aviation in Sweden), aims to remodel the short-haul flight infrastructure as we know it, and connect remote communities within Scandinavia through electric aircraft. As a consequence, this will reduce emissions and noise, and improve transport options through innovative manufacturing. Funded by the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova, and led by the company Heart, this initiative is backed by a number of universities, the Civil Aviation Administration, and the RISE Viktoria research institute. Mauritz Andersson, Academic Coordinator for ELISE, and Anders Forslund, Industrial Coordinator for ELISE shed light on this fascinating project.

Business aviation as an early adopter

According to Anders, the research project was specifically launched to address the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Scandinavia has a lot of remote communities spread across difficult terrain, making short-haul flights a very necessary commodity.

 

“Regional aviation has been declining due to the popularity of larger planes and centralised hubs,” Anders elaborates. “It’s a struggle to create a viable business model for small planes making short flights. This, in turn, threatens the accessibility of rural areas and the competitivity of the industries based in those areas. We’re also very aware of the carbon footprint per passenger on a short flight. So to find a solution that addresses all these issues at once is great. We can support these remote communities, kickstart an industry for electric aviation, with the right infrastructure to go along with it, and also address climate change.”

We can support these remote communities, kickstart an industry for electric aviation, with the right infrastructure to go along with it, and also address climate change.

“The Nordic countries have always prioritised sustainability and the environment,” Anders continues. “We’ve observed a surge in the adoption of electric vehicles over the past few years, and recently Norway announced they wanted all flights to be 100% electric by 2040. This made Scandinavia a perfect candidate as an early adopter for electric aviation.”

 

Business aviation has been a strong advocate for electric air transport, seeking regulatory approvals related to electrification, urban air mobility, “flying taxis” and e-VTOL. Mauritz confirms this fact: “The business aviation sector is a real trailblazer for innovation and electric aviation. The more adopters we have in this sector, the more likely it is that commercial aviation will also take this over, allowing the general public to travel on low-cost, but high-safety aircraft. But we need everyone to work together for this to happen.”

Business aviation is a part of the solution.

“It’s similar to electric automobiles,” Anders compares. “It started out as a premium product and has grown to be a lot more mainstream. If the business travellers are the early adopters in this case, this will be a huge driver for change. Business aviation is a part of the solution.”

Setting up a new industry and the right infrastructure

Making electric aviation a conventional product does mean setting up a new industry: “The ELISE project tries to fulfil the development of fossil-free aviation, through battery-electric aircraft,” Mauritz explains. “This means we have to set up an industry that is capable of building these aircraft and aircraft systems. Our ambition has to be broad.”

 

“We need to do some major upscaling if we want this project to work,” Mauritz declares. “In order to electrify aviation, we need to invest – whether it’s people, money, or resources. It’s a great opportunity to see these efforts transform into the next step of battery technology. But if we want this to work, it won’t happen by waiting around. We have to be disruptive.”

“Building an aircraft – especially an electric one – requires a massive effort,” Anders reflects. “Getting it certified and establishing the ground infrastructure all requires a huge collaborative undertaking, with many different stakeholders. But we’ve already seen similar cases in the past, such as the telecommunications industry and building a wireless telephone network. We’re hoping to achieve a similar climate with electric aviation.”

 

Mauritz adds that flying is one of the most resource-efficient and energy-efficient transportation methods. “But you need to figure out how to use renewable energy,” he surmises. “In order to build an industry around battery-powered aircraft, you need to think about the entire supply chain. We have to build up a production that is circular and sustainable. From the conception to end use and recycling.”

In order to build an industry around battery-powered aircraft, you need to think about the entire supply chain.

If the team wants to ensure electric aviation eventually replaces all domestic flights in Norway by 2040 however, they’re working on a very tight deadline: “We want to get started on the industrialisation phase as soon as possible,” Anders states.

 

“This means getting the authorities, regulatory agencies, airports, and the rest of the industry on board,” Mauritz explains. “We have to explore all resources based on the current charging infrastructure for cars and figure out how to translate that into one for planes. Implementation requires a lot of collaboration.”

The innovative aspect of electric aviation

Once the industry is established, and the right infrastructure in place, there’s no stopping the innovation. Multiple sources are already speaking of urban air mobility, where ‘flying taxis’ will be able to land on top of parking garages, existing aerodromes and heliports, and even unused city spaces could form a network for local flight routes. With aerospace being one of the most innovative industries in the world, the probability of developing new technology and creating significant infrastructure that improve communities is high. Business aviation is a primary driver of innovation: each new generation of aircraft is 15 – 20% more fuel efficient than the previous generation.

In a few years, the range for battery electric aircraft should be sufficient enough to take over a significant part of continental air travel.

Urban aviation and flying cars are a large hype at the moment,” Mauritz observes. “But one of the challenges is getting people to understand that electric aircraft is actually a reality, with new opportunities. How you travel by airplane today, might not necessarily be the same in the future. We’re used to large airports around big city hubs – but electric aviation will help put smaller planes and regional airports on the map. Yes, there are limitations to the flying range, but the flexibility, and ease of travelling is fully present.”

 

“The ES-19 aircraft we’re currently working on will have an operational range of 400 kilometres,” Anders adds. “This is not the solution for transatlantic travel, but fortunately, there’s a big market for those ranges.”

 

“We’re currently looking into what the limitations of battery technologies are,” Mauritz explains. “But in a few years, the range for battery electric aircraft should be sufficient enough to take over a significant part of continental air travel.”

Building an aircraft takes time. We need to start today, to have this project happen sooner, rather than later.

Mauritz and Anders also talk about the capabilities of the ES-19 battery-powered airplane: “We’ll be testing the plane for the next few years,” Anders says. “It’s got a highly efficient propeller, with motor power electronics and battery packs. What’s important to note is that an electric motor is 30 times lower in cost than a turboprop engine – with zero maintenance to boot.”

 

“Aviation is a good example of technological progress,” Anders concludes. “It’s when people come together – the visionaries, the engineers, the policymakers… That’s when we make progress. Many people say we’ve still got a long way to go. But building an aircraft takes time. We need to start today, to have this project happen sooner, rather than later. You need the infrastructure. You need to educate people. You need legislation in place. The more electric planes become a part of someone’s life though, the more people will realise this is a great concept.”

The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals came to life with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These goals were established as the guidelines for countries and companies to work towards making the world a more peaceful and prosperous place. Goals not only focus on humanitarian causes such as reducing inequality, ending poverty, and improving education, but also encouraging economic growth and stimulating climate action.

 

Do you have an example of how a company in the business aviation sector is aligned with these goals? Don’t hesitate to reach out!