Faradair, the UK company developing a hybrid-electric short takeoff and landing aircraft for a variety of applications including regional airline service, on Tuesday began operations at its new headquarters at Duxford airfield. The move gives the startup the stability it says it needs to advance plans to achieve a first flight with the planned Bio Electric Hybrid Aircraft (BEHA) in early 2024.
The company is the anchor tenant in Duxford’s new Avtech facility established as a research and development hub for general aviation ventures by Cambridge University’s Gonville & Caius College on land that it owns adjoining the Imperial War Museum site. The relocation marks what founder and CEO Neil Cloughley hopes will be a positive fresh start for a program that has struggled to gain altitude in a country that supposedly has ambitions to advance zero-carbon aviation technology.
“We were finished with the UK after six years of banging our heads against the wall,” Cloughley told AIN. “At the start of 2020, I thought the program would die if we stayed in this country, and at the start of March, we were in the U.S., having meetings at the Pentagon and ready to sign a lease to move into an airport on the East Coast. The level of support available [in the U.S.] was incredible.”
But the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to that plan as officials in the state concerned had to rapidly reprioritize their budgets. “I could not see us surviving in the UK for another year and then suddenly we were contacted by the Imperial War Museum about the Avtech aerospace hub about Gonville & Caius’s plan to invest in a prototype building.”
The new facility is expected to be ready in 18 to 24 months and Faradair will use it to build the new aircraft, in the process giving museum visitors a glimpse of how the 21st century aerospace industry works. For the time being, the company is occupying temporary space in the museum’s Battle of Britain hangar.
According to Cloughley, the design definition work, which has been underway with a team at Swansea University in Wales for several years, is at an advanced stage. Selecting a partner for the BEHA’s propulsion system is the next critical decision and the outlook for this changed in April when a new undisclosed option became available.
Essentially, the company is weighing whether to continue with a parallel hybrid combination of a new or existing turboprop and an electric motor, or to make a new start based on a generator to provide constant electric power. The plan calls for the chosen turboprop to run on biofuels and for hybrid versions of the aircraft to be converted to all-electric propulsion under a supplementary type certificate when this technology is finalized.
If BEHA starts life as a hybrid-electric aircraft, plans call for it to later be converted to all-electric by replacing the generator under a supplemental type certificate. The company aims to have the first version of the aircraft ready to enter service in 2026.
Faradair anticipates building three variants of the BEHA: the initial hybrid-electric M1H, a pilotless M1AT model to be operated autonomously for military roles, and an all-electric E1 expected to be available by 2030.
The aircraft is similar in size to the former British Aerospace Jetstream 31 twin turboprop regional airliner, with a wingspan of 55 feet. The preliminary design shows a rear ducted fan and a “triple box” wing consisting of three beams joined together in winglets.
The aircraft is expected to be able to carry 18 passengers or 5 tonnes of freight on flights of up to around 1,150 miles. It is expected to have a service ceiling of around 14,000 feet and operate at speeds of up to 230 mph.
The chance to establish a permanent home at Duxford appears to have boosted fund-raising efforts aimed at getting the BEHA into commercial service. Cloughley said he is now focused on what he called a “seed-plus-round” that will support the expansion of Faradair’s engineering team and the work being done in Swansea. He hopes that will be complete, along with the finalized design, by the end of the second quarter of 2021.
Then the company will start building its prototype. “We need to catch up on time so we will use as much COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] equipment as possible so that we can make an aircraft that will get flight-testing approval. This may mean some changes to the design and is likely to occupy the team for around 18 months.
According to Cloughley, who formerly worked in aviation asset management, four institutional investors are showing an interest in supporting a Series B funding round to raise between $250 million and $500 million to support the flight test and certification phase of the program. He acknowledged that the earlier phase of fundraising can be challenging for aviation startups because venture capital groups are typically focused on getting a return on their investment in three to five years. Nonetheless, Faradair has attracted interest from some tier-one aerospace entities and also investors from outside the industry.
In Cloughley’s view, it is in the early stages that government funding would be best put to use to stimulate advances in new technology, and he argues that the UK has taken the wrong approach in this regard with programs such as its Aerospace Technology Institute. “The UK has a very dated view of how we should be innovated,” he told AIN. “It’s fixated on big aerospace prime contractors and their role in the industry back in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Nonetheless, he believes the time is right for an aircraft like the BEHA because the extreme fall-out from Covid has the potential to radically change the air transport business model. “It will take the market at least 18 months to recover and this is genuinely a changing moment. Sustainability has become a huge topic for the industry,” Cloughley concluded.
This story comes from the new FutureFlight.aero resource developed by AIN to provide objective, independent coverage and analysis of new aviation technology, including electric aircraft developments.