Blog: Where’s My Electric-powered Airplane?

 - March 30, 2023, 5:11 PM
Peter Sripol's ultralight electric airplane takes off from grass strip
YouTuber Peter Sripol's electric-powered ultralight airplane. (Photo: screenshot from Peter Sripol YouTube channel)

Billions of dollars are being spent on developing electric aircraft, from vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) machines to conventional airplanes that use a runway, as well as a huge variety of designs enabled by distributed electric propulsion. What’s surprising, however, is the distinct lack of electric propulsion development in the experimental/homebuilt aircraft field.

Yes, I know that there are some electric-powered airplanes that people are building in their garages and hangars, but the level of activity doesn’t seem to have reached anywhere near what’s going on in the automotive world.

There is an excellent magazine covering automotive electric vehicle (EV) conversions, EV Builder’s Guide, and to my amazement you can buy kits to convert just about any kind of car into an EV. The kits come with all the stuff you need: motors, controllers, cables, battery systems, etc., and they’ve been used to turn everything from an E-type Jaguar to a battered old Ford truck into an EV. The magazine even helpfully runs tutorials on how this stuff works. Who knew this was all happening?

So what is going on in aviation, at the level of the garage tinkerer who isn’t trying to raise scads of money from venture capitalists but just wants a fun electric-powered airplane to fly or maybe wants to sell kits like the EV people? Not a whole lot, it turns out.

The most prominent of the aviation-type activities I could find is Gabriel DeVault (yes, that’s his name and it does sound kind of like volt) and his electric Sonex Xenos. Gabriel figured out that it was easier to adapt an existing propulsion system rather than develop a new one, so he gutted a Zero motorcycle to power his kit-built Xenos. Kitplanes magazine’s Paul Dye did an excellent job covering this and is even building his own electric Xenos. 

So there have to be some smart tinkerers out there trying to do what DeVault has done, maybe with other airplane platforms or even with their own concoctions of motors, batteries, and controllers. If so, I’d love to hear from them.

Meanwhile, there is some activity in the light-airplane electric power space, and if you don’t want to do it yourself, you can buy a fully assembled ultralight airplane like Aerolite’s EV-103 for about $35,000 fully assembled with four batteries, giving it about 40 minutes of endurance. And it’s cheaper if you build it yourself.

In the UK, Tim and Helen Bridge have converted a Zenith CH750 Cruzer to electric power using the same propulsion system as eAviation Pipistrel’s Velis Electro. The Electro is the first certified electric aircraft and is being used by flight schools for local training.

Peter Sripol is on YouTube (with a respectable 2.1 million subscribers) and has made his own electric ultralight airplane, which is impressive and more along the lines of what I’ve been looking for in terms of electric experimentation.

I’m sure there are other examples of innovative EV aircraft out there, but it still hasn’t risen to the level of activity in the automotive world and probably won’t. After all, a huge number of people drive cars and don’t fly themselves, and I expect the same will be true in the amateur-built aircraft space.

But nevertheless, a lot is going on in the electric aircraft world where the aforementioned billions are being spent and we may yet see more action among those who just like to fly and want to do it powered by batteries. Some of the technology that the well-funded companies are developing will surely trickle down to the tinkerers.

An observant walk around the grounds of EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, this summer or coming sooner, the Aero Friedrichshafen show in Germany, will hopefully reveal some more unique electric aircraft projects.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.