The case for all-electric and electric-hybrid propulsion for a new generation of commuter fixed-wing aircraft is economically viable, but battery capacity and supporting technology remain major obstacles toward that future. So said the leaders of two pioneering platforms on Tuesday at the EBACE Newsmakers Breakfast.
Jean Botti, the CEO and CTO of France-based VoltAero, and Gregory Davis, president and interim CEO of Eviation Aircraft, joined a panel of journalists eager to separate the hopes and hype of airplane electric propulsion from reality. VoltAero is developing the Cassio family of hybrid-electric aircraft, while Seattle-based Eviation is working on the all-electric Alice,
VoltAero chose an emission-free hybrid-electric model—batteries supplemented by a thermal engine—to increase its range and provide a backup in case of a battery power problem, Botti said. “We came to the conclusion that the best compromise today, with the state of batteries, was hybrid.”
Davis acknowledged batteries are “temperamental,” and described the lack of technological advancement and production as a “chicken and egg” situation, exacerbated by the minuscule scale of aerospace’s needs versus the current demand for automotive batteries.
Addressing regulatory and certification issues that face such aircraft, Davis said, “Eighty percent of Alice is a normal airplane,” which will minimize certification roadblocks and ensure airspace access. Botti noted the first model, the four-seat Cassio 330, “is coming up for certification at the end of the year.”
Answering questions about the demand for and public acceptance of such platforms, Davis pointed to U.S. commuter airline Cape Air’s order, announced in April, for 75 nine-passenger Alices.
Botti said VoltAero has 70 preorders for the Cassio 330 from buyers in countries including the U.S., UK, and France, and had recently introduced a fractional ownership program for the aircraft “to engage normal people and get them excited” about the new technology. He also announced that the Netherlands “has just selected us to make a demonstration for carrying goods all around the country.”
Challenged on the possibility of growing into major companies, given the track record of new aerospace ventures in the last half-century, Davis cast Eviation’s goal in an alternate light. “It’s about sustainable aerospace, eliminating carbon emissions, and making sure we can fly in 10, 15, 20 years without damaging the environment. We have no choice. We have to do it, and we dare to do it.”
“Never say never," said Botti. "There is money in the world. If you can demonstrate a great concept that will change the world, they’ll invest and start the pump, you’ll get orders and down payments, and banks will trust you. It’s a struggle every day, absolutely, but it’s not mission impossible.”