Friday, May 24, 2024

Electric Aircraft……Near Future Or Still Far Away?

By Commander Rahul Verma

Each day we see the electric car industry growing apace. In India, hybrid and electric cars are becoming common on our roads, as are electric charging points in car parking. Their prices are declining, too. Railway electrification is on the renewal agenda because it offers better performance and protection of the environment than diesel trains, as well as reducing noise pollution for people living along busy train lines. The earth’s climate is changing, and our behaviour must also change. That means moving towards cleaner, more efficient forms of transport. 

As road and rail travel shift towards electric, it is time for aviation to join the bandwagon. Electric propulsion offers a new power source for aviation in the military and civil domains. It is, therefore, important that military and civil aviation both participate. There’s cent percent certainty that aircraft emissions cause pollution. Open-source figures suggest that if current technology isn’t advanced, then CO2 output from aircraft will likely increase by two and a half times. This is due mainly to the growing middle classes in China, India, and African and South American countries, who increasingly want to fly. Even when offset by countries seeking to reduce CO2 output, that still means an overall rise of emissions from aircraft somewhere in the region of five per cent.

But that’s only part of the story. Increased aircraft operations activity in or around an airport also generates emissions that degrade the air quality. The risk comes from producing nitrous oxides, fine particulate matter, PM2.5, and ozone. This is documented widely by scientific evidence, and as a serious risk to public health, it must be tackled. The other grievous complaint from residents near airports is high noise. More contemporary aircraft designs have reduced noise levels, but improvements are still required. There’s also the economic argument. High-efficiency engines reduce the quantity of fuel needed, which in turn reduces the costs of operating an aircraft. This would become more apparent over time if the predicted reduced availability of oil materialises and drives costs ever higher. 

Through years of refining and optimising aircraft design, many feel that we’ve reached a plateau in terms of aircraft performance when it comes to fuel efficiency and aiming for lower emissions. If we look at battery power, like the car industry has, how can we square the circle and reconcile the fact that batteries are heavy and planes need to fly? The role of engineering is about finding solutions, solving problems, and finding new and better ways of doing things. To that end, new technologies are evolving, and their prototypes are commencing testing. 

By the time the 7th generation fighter comes along, which may be beyond 2060, manned flights will be rare at best (perhaps limited to fans). These aircraft will operate autonomously most of the time, linked with massive artificial intelligence (AI) systems operating at the theatre level. They will deploy modular engines designed to optimise speed, fuel consumption, and stealth, varying on use cases. Current fossil fuels may not be amply accessible to power these aircraft, and they will almost certainly use highly efficient, compressible fuels like liquid hydrogen. Future advances in battery/energy storage devices may make these fighters fully electric.

A few months before the ‘Round-the-Rim’ flight, United States Army Air Corps Lieutenant Ernest Emery Harmon wrote a detailed article on 30 March 1919, New York Sun, about the first trans-Atlantic flight in a ‘heavier than air machine.’ In it, he expressed his vision of the Future of aviation and, in his own words, predicted, “I believe that the time is not far off when you will find aerial garages in every big city, where you can buy a plane and be taught to fly it, where you can store one overnight and where you can hire an aerial taxi to take you from one town to another, or an aerial bus to show you the city.” Lt. Harmon’s futuristic vision of air mobility might have seemed like something out of a science-fiction novel over a century ago. Still, his predictions and imaginative thinking helped shape the Future of air travel and fuel a long string of innovations and transformative technology that turned concepts into reality. 

In March 2022, a huge milestone was achieved when US Air Force (USAF) pilots Hank Griffiths and Jonathan Appleby flew Beta Technologies’ electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft called ALIA. The maiden flight was conducted at a testing facility in Plattsburgh, New York. According to a USAF statement, USAF engineers (military personnel) and the BETA team (civilians) have been working since 2020 on the AFWERX Agility Prime program to achieve electric aviation competence. 

The collaboration is under a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR Phase II) contract. It was conceived as a cargo carrier but is now a fully electric aircraft that can accommodate up to five passengers plus a pilot. Similarly, in India, Sagar Defence Engineering’s famous Personal Aerial Vehicle (PAV), Varuna, was showcased to the nation during the Swalambhan 2022 seminar. Varuna has been imagined as a cargo carrier for inter-ship operations in the deep sea and is presently being tested for various rigours of the sea. Tsalla Aerospace is also progressing swiftly in creating a PAV as a separate iDEX SPRINT case. These two firms are doing path-breaking stuff like adding brainbox-based AI engines on these futuristic birds. Electric propulsion also suits the autonomous system more than ICE or GT engines. This helps in creating use cases as well as redundancies for the PAVs. 

Armed Forces are a huge oil consumer due to the nature of work. However, reliance on oil undermines this country’s long-term national security strategy and makes it vulnerable to attacks by insurgents and enemy forces that prey on supply routes, such as convoys carrying fuel. Meanwhile, oil refineries can be targeted for attack or even seized, which would cause unprecedented chaos in any country. The military is increasingly aware of the environmental and economic benefits of electric propulsion and their responsibility towards reducing greenhouse gases.  

Later last year, Israeli aerospace company Eviation came out with a genuinely electric flying machine, not with retrofits or hybrids, but with the world’s first all-electric aircraft. Their commuter plane, alluringly named Alice, is a first in many ways, pushing limits and changing perceptions of aeronautical engineering. The business opportunity held in just small regional jets is amazing, which the Israeli firm is targeting. There are some 40,000 active airframes of this size all over the world. Within these regional jet fleets, the average age is 40 years, making this class of aircraft one of the oldest in the skies. 

Hence, they would be the first to be replaced, making them the first go-to market. The ability to design, develop and manufacture jet engines for fighters or, say, jet fighters is not just about manufacturing the machine in question but rather an ‘industrial; technological; and systemic’ competency attained by an ecosystem, which we as a country have missed. With the advancement in composite technology, autonomous systems, deep tech, axial flux motors and the growing battery industry within India, there is scope for us to undertake research and development (R&D) and become world leaders in regional electric jets. This is about an entirely different approach towards marching into the Future. Rather than replication, the focus must be on finding an alternative route to technological leadership. The idea is to SPRINT ahead of the technology leaders with newer scientific theories and niche novel innovations. Such new scientific ideas are rare, but they should not be missed if it occurs. A deliberate and highly positive approach with the following tenets is considered essential.

(a) The current innovation ecosystem in India remains primarily focused on incremental innovations. A structure to scout, define and support deep futuristic tech and tough-tech innovations like IDEX is doing is explicitly required for the aviation sector.  

(b) Open innovation system does not exist compared to the number of engineering colleges in our country. Internal innovation systems within public sector undertakings (PSUs) have serious core R&D capabilities but are plagued with red tapesim. Setting up open innovation challenges/competitions for fostering external innovations like the Indian Navy’s SPRINT is one of the many ways. The whole industrial business ecosystem is based on securing a share of the existing pie with proven available means, but there is a need to support venture capital (VC) funding in R&D. 

(c) Promoting and nurturing organisations to create innovation managers, mavericks using high-efficiency scientific practices and engineering systems for quality efforts towards operations management, innovations, and induction. 

These could be achieved by deploying meticulous ratings and incentivising of industry based on their practices. This ‘system of systems is complicated to establish, but it is being pursued by many stakeholders, including eVTOL operators, communication-system service providers, data service providers, and regulatory authorities. The success of air-traffic management depends on all stakeholders having trust in the essential elements of the system. This will require reliable and available communication, predictable and consistent navigation, and accessible, trusted surveillance. These elements, coupled with tried-and-tested procedures, coordinated teams, redundancy, and continuous training, will enable the system to operate reliably and safely. 

The future of urban air mobility (UAM) is bright, but it will require a collaborative effort between all stakeholders to make the idea a reality. The risk of failure will be high if we do not take the time to plan carefully and ensure that all essential elements are in place before moving forward with implementation. The policy and regulations for unmanned traffic management systems are critical business components. The relevant algorithms could be evaluated commercially and create a viable product with them. As the industry moves forward, it is essential to remember that regulations are more relaxed than they may seem. 

They provide a framework within which companies can operate but also allow for innovation and creativity. If companies are willing to work with regulators and comply with their requirements, there is little reason why they cannot develop a service that meets needs while also ensuring safety. The issues associated with air traffic management are complex, and the implications for the future of UAM are significant. If a market leader like Airbus becomes the ‘voice of reason,’ global policy and regulations will flow swiftly.

Hundreds of startups are betting that electric aviation will finally provide safe, affordable UAM services. It is up to the eVTOL industry and the regulators to show that, this time, it will be different. It will be a slow evolution to achieve that fully autonomous eVTOL capability. I’m convinced it will take another 10 years, but we will be there!

What kind of physical infrastructure will we need to support this game-changing technology? From supporting spare battery capacity to locating recharging points? How long will batteries take between fights to change or charge? Will fight times be dramatically affected? What happens when flights are diverted? The challenge of integration is, perhaps, the biggest challenge of all. How does the new technology integrate with legacy systems, design, and infrastructure? How does the industry support funding and operation when engineers and designers have the latest technologies refined and ready for a flight? 

As that green-sky future moves closer, forward-looking governments like ours must support innovative companies through funds, resources and knowledge sharing between government and non-governmental research labs. There will be turbulence and enormous opportunities ahead as the electrification of aircraft slowly becomes a reality, so it’s important to have seat belts tight to ensure a smooth flight.

Cdr. Rahul Verma is presently posted at TDAC looking after Unmanned Systems and Aviation Innovations. He is a Seaking Pilot with 4,000 flying hours experience. The officer is also a qualified RPA crew with an extensive experience in unmanned flying operations. He holds a Masters degree in Aerospace Law and a Post Graduate Diploma in Autonomous Systems and Product management a MBA from the Olin Business School, St Louis.

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