Eyeing the future of hybrid and electric-powered aircraft, Collins Aerospace yesterday revealed its plan to establish a $50 million, 25,000-sq-ft lab, called “the Grid,” that will pull together expertise throughout the company and its parent United Technologies Corp. to make step changes toward electric flight.
“Collins has a long and a strong history in electrical systems,” said Collins Aerospace CEO Kelly Ortberg yesterday in Rockford, Illinois, during an event that unveiled the plans for the new facility. “The Grid positions us to remain the world leader in the electrification of aircraft for decades to come.” It will enable the company to design and test the next generation of electric aircraft across business aviation, commercial air transport, military, unmanned, and urban air mobility markets.
To be housed within Collin’s Aerospace’s nearly 100-year-old site in Rockford, the Grid will build on knowledge the company has gained as a power systems supplier over multiple platforms for decades. This includes the development and certification of what Ortberg called the “world’s largest flying micro-grid," a 1.5-megawatt power-management and distribution system aboard the Boeing 787.
In addition to the background on electric systems at Collins Aerospace, the lab also will pull in know-how from fellow companies and outside suppliers to solve issues surrounding weight, power density, thermal loss, and high-voltage distribution that are critical in making significant steps forward in electric propulsion.
Tim White, president of Collins Aerospace Power and Controls, called the Grid a “tool” to enable the team to innovate on hybrid and electric systems, developing multiple multi-megawatt-class generators, motors, and motor controls that can be certified and operate safely in every environment and failure mode. To illustrate the scope of the projects, he noted that one megawatt of power is equal to the power consumption of about 400 homes.
The Grid is anticipated to create 50 jobs just to operate the labs but might result in the creation or use of far more positions, depending on projects involved. The $50 million investment is part of a larger $150 million investment that the company plans to make over the next three years in electrification projects, Ortberg said, adding these technologies have the capabilities of reducing noise by 85 percent, fuel consumption by 40 percent, carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent, and operations and maintenance costs by 20 percent.
To begin operating in about 12 months and be fully operational by 2021, the Grid will comprise four separate labs that will have the flexibility to interchange projects and run them simultaneously. The first of the projects to take advantage of the grid will be the recently revealed Project 804, a hybrid demonstrator that involves a re-engined de Havilland Dash 8 Series 100 stationed at Pratt & Whitney’s facility in Montreal, Quebec.
Spearheaded by the recently formed United Technologies Advanced Projects (UTAP) team, the project was named after the distance, in miles, between Rockford and Montreal. The demonstrator is designed to showcase the economic viability of hybrid-electric propulsion, involving a two megawatt-class propulsion system. This project is anticipated to demonstrate a 30 percent savings in fuel consumption.
Plans call for flying the demonstrator within three years. The idea isn’t to certify this particular project but to gain knowledge on a roadmap to the ultimate goal of electric and hybrid flight. This includes systems integration and involves a human factors element, working with pilots on what will work best from the flight deck. In addition, added Jason Chua, executive director of UTAP, the project will involve engaging with regulators to demonstrate the safety of the systems and pave the way for a certification basis.
But the project underscores the philosophy of the team of working with speed by tackling doable projects that can be certified. This includes working with off-the-shelf technologies, such as batteries. Collins Aerospace has the expertise in battery integration but will work with others with a background in battery cell technology. However, Collins Aerospace is not yet ready to detail which vendors it may be collaborating with at this point.
The Grid is not as much intended to look at the smaller motors involved in the generation of a small eVTOL commuter, White said, adding that technology is already available. Collins Aerospace is more looking at larger propulsion systems that could drive the range of aircraft. As such, company executives expect the lab will be used in partnership with a variety of partners, potentially including military, academia, other interested parties.
At the same time, Collins Aerospace is building the lab with some announced projects in mind, White said. And, Greg Winn, director of program management for UTAP, added Project 804 has “generated quite a bit of…positive interest,” across several parties.