Boeing and Safran this week announced a joint investment in energy storage specialist Electric Power Systems (EPS). The undisclosed investment during a Series A funding round will help Utah-based EPS to develop a highly automated industrial base capable of producing aviation-grade batteries at far higher rates than is possible today. It will also support work to reduce the cost of the batteries, making them more viable for electric aircraft.
France-based Safran is actively involved in a number of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft developments, including Bell’s Nexus, for which it is providing a new turboshaft to support its hybrid-electric powerplant. It has also been involved in Zunum’s ZA-10 fixed-wing program, which appears to be stalled due to a lack of funds, and reportedly with MetroSkyways’ City Hawk.
Boeing’s HorizonX division is supporting the development of the new Personal Air Vehicle and Cargo Air Vehicle by subsidiary company Aurora Flight Sciences. The Boeing group also has a new partnership with Kitty Hawk, which is developing the Cora eVTOL design in New Zealand.
EPS is already providing energy storage units for the Nexus model. It is also supporting Bye Aerospace’s electrically powered eFlyer fixed-wing aircraft.
Safran views the eVTOL sector as a launchpad for introducing electrical power to larger aircraft and, in its view, improving the efficiency of energy storage is a key factor in achieving this. “We think that eVTOL is a significant business opportunity that still faces a lot of uncertainty,” Hervé Blanc, vice president of the group’s Electrical & Power division told AIN. “The eVTOL aircraft are perfect for demonstrating the benefits of electric and hybrid power solutions and we expect them to drive other opportunities with larger aircraft.
According to Safran, weight constraints for energy storage units are a far greater challenge for aviation than they are in the automotive sector. So too, are the ability to meet safety standards and to produce large numbers of batteries at an acceptable cost.
In Blanc’s view, power is more of a challenge for eVTOL aircraft developers than autonomous flight controls. “Autonomy is easier with aircraft than for a car,” he argued. “You take off from one fixed point and land in another, following a clear channel on the way so it’s much easier to define how this is done than it is for an autonomous car in the middle of traffic.”
Safran believes it might well take another five years to get eVTOL aircraft certified and in commercial service, and that operations will likely start with cargo operations. “It is fairly easy to do a flight demonstration with just one prototype but getting a fleet of aircraft into service with the right level of safety and reliability will be another story and demonstrating that the industry can achieve that will require a step-by-step approach,” Blanc commented. Safran also is working on algorithms to ensure that operators will know with a high degree of accuracy how much charge is left in batteries so that they can be sure of landing safely.
The company is looking to support both hybrid and all-electric aircraft. It views the latter as being limited to flights of up to around 30 minutes with currently available energy storage technology, but envisions this shifting as the power-to-weight ratio of batteries improves. “Getting to 300 kW/kg will be a game-changer,” said Blanc. “The question is whether that will take one to two years or five to 10 years.”
Safran also has invested in Oxis Energy, which is developing new lithium-sulfur batteries. In July 2019, it acquired Neelogy, a France-based specialist in electrical current sensors.
Further ahead, the group believes electrical power will prove viable for regional airliners. At the Paris Air Show in June, it announced a partnership with Daher and Airbus through which they will seek to improve the aerodynamics of hybrid power solutions on larger aircraft through development work on one of Daher’s TBM single-engine turboprop aircraft.