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The self-piloted Vahana has been flying since 2018.
The self-piloted Vahana has been flying since 2018.

Photo: Airbus

Aviation

SAS and Airbus have electric dreams

The aviation industry is en route towards the introduction of electric planes, with the potential, eventually, for carbon-neutral flights. A new collaboration between SAS and Airbus is a significant step on this journey.

There’s a buzz in the air – it’s the sound of flying taxis, or eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off/landing aircraft), popping up as prototypes around the globe. A study by industry consultants Roland Berger estimates that “close to 100,000 passenger drones could be in service worldwide by 2050.” And the introduction of these eVTOLs could happen surprisingly soon. This June, Uber announced at its Uber Elevate Summit that it intends to launch urban flying taxi operations in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne as soon as the vehicles, charging infrastructure, air traffic management and safety aspects are mature CityAirbus, a taste of the future. Photo: Airbusenough.

The emergence of small electric planes will not only change the face of urban mobility, they’ll also serve as a testing ground for new electric flight technologies which, if successfully scaled up, will mean that passenger planes of the 2030s could be electric too. That’s an industry trend that aligns seamlessly with SAS’ longstanding commitment to sustainable air transport and specifically to its ambition to reduce emissions by 25% by 2030, mainly through fleet modernization and the increased use of biofuels.

Putting that ambition into practice, SAS and Airbus have signed a memorandum of understanding whereby the two companies will collaboratively research and assess the opportunities and challenges regarding airline operations and infrastructure linked to the wide-scale introduction of new hybrid-electric aircraft.

“We’re honored to be a part of this journey that enables us to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the aircraft of the future,” says Lars Andersen Resare, Head of Environment & CSR at SAS.

“Our customers, and society at large, are demanding developments toward considerably lower emissions and this fits very well into our journey, whereby sustainable biofuels will bridge the gap toward electrification. We see that electric aircraft in the beginning will have great ­potential on shorter routes, but of course, this is also the first step toward increased electrification of long-haul aircraft, though those may be further down the development curve in the future.”

‘Our customers, and society at large, are demanding developments towards considerably lower emissions’

HybriD-electric aircraft engines, powered by an onboard generator fueled by a combination of biofuel and supported using electric batteries for power storage, could also be a stepping stone toward fully electric ­airliners. As for the timescale for implementation, Resare says that for the next generation of short-haul airliners that could be used on ­domestic and regional flights.

Airbus is already an established player in the race to deliver electric planes and is currently nurturing a family of “urban aerial mobility” electric vehicles, including the self-piloted Vahana, the 4-seater CityAirbus and the Pop.Up Next concept vehicle designed in collaboration with Audi.

“Vahana has been flying since January 2018 and has completed numerous flights – vertical takeoffs, landings and transitions to forward flight at various speeds. That’s an aircraft capable of carrying passengers with zero emissions,” says Glenn Llewellyn, General Manager Electrifi­cation at Airbus.

“Five years ago, that kind of achievement wasn’t considered within reach. It’s only a one-passenger aircraft today, but we’re about to fly the 2.2 tonne CityAirbus prototype, capable of taking four passengers. So between Vahana and ­CityAirbus we’re going from one to four passengers in the space of a year.”

To contextualize the progress of electric planes, in 2015, Airbus flew the original twin seater E-Fan, an electric plane used for training pilots, across the English Channel, a milestone that enabled Airbus to plan the next evolutionary steps toward mainstream electric aviation. That E-Fan had 60kw of installed power whereas its successor, the E-Fan X, slated for its first flight in 2020, will have 2 megawatts of hybrid electric propulsion.

 “The E-Fan X will allow us to learn a huge amount that will guide the next phase of our roadmap,” says Llewellyn “We believe that in the 2030s, a 100-seat hybrid electric aircraft is achievable – it’s something Airbus has set as an extremely serious target.”

The E-Fan X is a flying test-bed for evaluating the performance of hybrid-electric aircraft engines. Photo: Airbus

By 2050, Airbus aims to have cut CO2 emissions to half of what they were in 2005, an ambitious target in a sector with an anticipated doubling of its in-service fleets every 15 years. However, even the benefits of electric planes won’t be enough to reach this target.

“That’s a huge reduction in emissions” says Llewellyn. “We know that the only way we can do that is by looking at different energy sources, so biofuels and ‘power-to-liquid synthetic fuel’ are also part of our roadmap.”

Power-to-liquid synthetic fuel is a ­nascent technology where hydrogen is generated from solar electricity via solar panels and by using a process called “direct air carbon capture,” carbon is taken directly from the air and combined with hydrogen to make synthetic jet fuel.

“We want to be able to fly people with zero emissions, ­initially on inter-­European routes and eventually on long- range aircraft. That’s important since we recognize there’s a societal expectation for us to meet those targets,” adds Llewellyn.

Currently, the main challenge is energy storage. When Airbus first flew its E-Fan in 2010, it had a battery of 120 watt hours per kilogram. The Vahana prototype has closer to 250 watt hours per kilogram and last year, Airbus flew a High Altitude Pseudo Satellite, an aircraft with solar panels that flies at 65,000 feet using 435 watt hours per kilogram technology.

But are airlines ready for all this, and will the economics stack up?

“Airlines, regulators and governments are excited about the possibility to reduce CO2 emissions. Vahana and CityAirbus can compete with ground transportation in cities, so we’re pushing these electric technologies to bring benefits in terms of operating costs for airlines too,” says Llewellyn.

Beyond these benefits, there’s another significant advantage, he concludes. “With electric planes, there’s the possi­bility to eliminate noise from the turbine. That’s something we want to bring as a benefit not just to passengers but also to communities around airports.”

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