Electric vehicles are going to be the future of mobility. And taking that future to the skies is a California-based startup Ampaire, who has recently experimented with retrofitting of an electric motor in a 50-year-old five-passenger airplane.
Kevi Noertker, cofounder and CEO of Ampaire told the Wall Street Journal that the company has used a normal combustion engine to spin a propeller of its nose cone (front) for the test flight. However, the second engineer in the propeller or an airscrew was an electric motor. A propeller converts rotary motion from an engine or other power source into a swirling slipstream which pushes the propeller forwards or backwards.
Noertker estimates that the hybrid plane would use 55% less fuel than an unmodified plane. It will also cost up to 50% less to maintain and offers a range of 200 miles.
Ampaire has received FAA approval to fly its plane for experimental purposes. Further, it plans to take a retrofitted aircraft to Hawaii later this year for more tests.
Ampaire is among the few startups and corporates who have been trying to revolutionise aviation sector with electric aeroplanes or a retrofitted hybrid ones. On a global level, Airbus is also working on such replacement. Airbus SE has said that it would replace one of the four turbofans on a short-haul jetliner with an electric motor, and plans to test-fly it by 2021.
Even though the company is not looking to produce it commercially, it is looking to demonstrate new technology.
Another mobility giant, Uber plans to launch a transportation service using electric, vertical-takeoff aircraft in 2023. California-based Wright Electric aims to retrofit a nine-passenger plane with a hybrid engine. CEO Jeff Engler said would be suitable for skydiving flights and estimates fuel savings of up to 20%.
These companies are, however, hoping that regulators will approve modified planes more quickly than new electric aircraft. Their hopes are high since retrofitted planes will offer significant savings on fuel and maintenance for small airlines and charter companies.
The companies expect that the first retrofitted aircraft, which could be either hybrid or fully electric, will likely carry fewer than 20 passengers and fly between 100 and 200 miles on a single charge. This would be enough for connectivity between small airports in regions where traffic or natural obstacles make driving time-consuming.
However, the Federal Aviation Administration said that approvals for design changes still can take many years. The regulator emphasised that retrofits will “undergo a thorough evaluation where FAA will determine what new safety standards might be needed to address the new technology.”
The uncertainty and bleak possibilities of a launch anytime soon hasn’t dampened the investor interest in the sector. According to recent data from PitchBookInvestors, venture capitalists have invested nearly $250 Mn for electric-aviation startups since 2017.
Dean Donovan, managing director at aviation-and-travel investment firm DiamondStream Partners, has said that regulatory hurdles for retrofits aren’t insurmountable. For a retrofit, “you already know the airframe works and all you’re really doing is replacing the propulsion system,” he believes.