Electric aircraft are breaking records and beginning to gain aviation industry interest
Dully whining electric motors may soon compete with roaring turbofans in the sky as battery-powered planes and helicopters take flight.
Aircraft are emerging as the new frontier in electric vehicles as new technology and market demand converge to drive development. More energy-dense batteries, lighter components and more efficient power electronics are making plug-in airplanes a realistic prospect. Talk of taxes on greenhouse gas emissions and more stringent noise regulations have sent engineers looking beyond pistons and turbines.
In addition, electric aircraft have begun to post impressive results. Chip Yates, an electric vehicle developer, set a manned electric air speed record of 202.6 mph two weeks ago. The 16-minute flight over the Mojave Desert bested the previous electric speed record of 175 mph.
Last year, Pipistrel USA won NASA’s Green Flight Challenge with an electric airplane that flew 200 miles with a fuel-equivalent efficiency of 403.5 passenger miles per gallon, which is the fuel efficiency divided by the number of passengers. Pascal Chretien, an aviation consultant and a test pilot, built and flew the first manned electric helicopter last August.
Why has it taken so long for airplanes to boldly go where cars have been for years?
The aviation industry is conservative about new technologies, stemming from culture as well as regulations, according to Peter Harrop, chairman of IDTechEx, a market research and consultancy firm. IDTechEx published a major report last month on the state of electric aviation throughout the industry.
The report details developments in electrical technologies, from airships to unmanned aerial vehicles. Harrop said much of the progress is driven by high fuel prices and market competition, especially in civil aviation.
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