ATR Eyes Hybrid-Electric Propulsion for New ‘Evo’ Turboprop

 - May 18, 2022, 3:00 AM
ATR expects the new Evo family of turboprops to enter service in 2030. (Image: ATR)

Franco-Italian aircraft manufacturer ATR has secured the backing of its board and shareholders to analyze the feasibility of a next-generation turboprop that targets a 20 percent fuel and CO2 emissions reduction and “double-digit” lower operating and maintenance costs over the current generation ATRs. The new variant, dubbed ATR ’Evo’—short for evolution or evolve—will span the entire ATR family, consisting of the ATR 42, which can seat up to 50 passengers; the larger ATR 72-600 and its freighter sibling, the ATR 72F; and the short take-off and landing ATR 42S, now under development.

As its name indicates, the ATR Evo builds on the OEM’s incremental strategy for the development of its turboprop family.

The Evo will remain a two-engine turboprop capable of flying on 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). It will incorporate a new powerplant with hybrid capability as well as an eco-design that includes updated propellers and enhanced cabin and systems. “Our next generation of aircraft will be a step forward in responsible flying,” commented ATR CEO Stefano Bortoli. “When it enters the market, the ATR Evo will pave the way towards a decarbonized future for aviation.” A 20 percent overall fuel improvement “means that the aircraft will emit over 50 percent less CO2 than a regional jet when powered by kerosene,” he pointed out. “When using 100 percent SAF, its emissions will be close to zero.”

ATR expects to launch the program next year with an entry into service target of 2030.

The Toulouse-based OEM has issued a request for information to main engine manufacturers for the development of “an optimized powerplant taking into account a hybridization with an electrical motor and a battery system,” ATR senior vice president of engineering Stéphane Viala told AIN. “The idea is to optimize the [conventional] thermodynamic engine with a second source of energy, namely an electrical one,” he said. Because the electric motor would boost power during takeoff and climb, the aircraft will generate optimized performance and improved fuel efficiency across the different phases of flight, according to Viala. The ATRs now use Pratt & Whitney PW127M turboprop engines.

The plan for the new engine is separate from ATR’s move to fit its aircraft with new PW127XT turboprops starting in the second half of this year. The XT—for extended time-on-wing—allows a 20 percent reduction in maintenance costs and a 3 percent reduction in fuel burn compared to PW127M, according to ATR. Viala acknowledged the electric engine and battery system will add some weight to ATR’s regional turboprop airliners, but noted that engineers expect to compensate by reducing weight somewhere else or slightly increase the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight. “In any case, we will keep the payload or even increase it a bit. This is a key feature we are investigating,” he said.

ATR last year said it began exploring unconventional propulsion options, including hydrogen, to improve the environmental and economic performance of its turboprops. Executives at that time cautioned that hydrogen-burning aircraft might present the right or feasible solution for many ATR operators, insisting that the company would only integrate CO2 emissions-reducing technology that is “available and affordable.”

The OEM is upholding that reasoning, despite the rise in third-party initiatives involving hydrogen-fuel cell-based propulsion for regional aircraft. Many ATR operators such as Spain’s Air Nostrum, Ireland’s ASL Aviation Holdings, Icelandair Group, and Ravn Alaska have committed to installing hydrogen-propulsion conversion kits in their existing or future turboprop aircraft fleets.

ATR decided on what Viala describes as a “mild [level of] hybridization” because it considers hydrogen a longer-term option that will require a lot of production and infrastructure modifications. Hybrid-electric propulsion ensures significant progress on the environmental and economic performance of the ATR aircraft family, maintained the company’s commercial senior vice president, Fabrice Vautier.

“This feasibility study is looking at the technical solutions based on a new engine, but it is also a global review of our market potential with this new aircraft,” Vautier said. “We are evaluating how we can capture more market share and make our product more inclusive so we can serve more regional communities.” With double-digit operating cost savings achieved through 20 percent lower fuel burn and 20 percent overall maintenance cost reduction, airlines can serve thin routes more profitably, and communities can benefit from more connectivity, more essential services, and more economic development, he added.

The company seeks to respond to the need for more environmentally sustainable aviation and more affordable travel, according to Vautier. “We need to not only achieve a steep change on environmental sustainably but also continue on lowering the operating costs,” he explained. “In many of our markets, the sustainability topic does not resonate in the same way as in Europe. While environmental sustainability is a key topic in mature markets such as Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, the cost per seat is the key driver in emerging markets,” he told AIN.

The plan for the ATR Evo enjoys the “full support” of the company’s two shareholders, Airbus and Leonardo, he affirmed. The development of the next-generation variant coincides with a steady recovery of the airframer, Vautier added. ATR delivered 31 new aircraft in 2021 versus 10 in 2020 and plans to ship close to 40 new aircraft his year, between 40 and 50 in 2023, and more than 50 units in 2024. “We are in ramp-up mode. We are getting close to where we were before the crisis,” he noted. 

While the new hybrid-electric powerplant takes center stage, the Evo will incorporate many other innovations to drive the aircraft’s performance, economics, and sustainability, revealed Viala. They include new propellers (and possibly a switch from six to eight blades), increased use of lighter bio-sourced materials for the cabin, and an intensified focus on the recyclability and re-use of materials such as carbon fiber.