Why electric aircrafts will change the world

The solar-electric Helios Prototype by Nasa
The solar-electric Helios Prototype by Nasa
The solar-electric Helios Prototype by Nasa

This is it! 2018 is coming soon and a big topic of the moment (and hopefully this will continue) is climate change. Paris just hosted the climate summit 2017, and I feel like there is a shift to ecology that is happening right now. But what about the aviation industry? Nowadays, aviation represents a considerable amount of carbon dioxide emission in the world and flight traffic is still rising as prices continue to go down. The aviation industry is well aware of the problem but is more focused on reducing oil consumption by incremental steps rather than disrupting the way they build planes. Fortunately, some players on the market are trying to change this, and I think that there are a few reasons why now is the time to do things.

The most obvious point is carbon emission: we need to have a more sustainable way of transportation, and we cannot continue to burn fossil fuel in the future. Electric aircrafts are an answer to this matter, as well as more efficient and faster trains, electric cars and city bikes. Why is now the best time for the electric plane revolution? Because the maturity of the technology has changed a lot. Thanks to the smartphone industry and the electric cars (everyone now knows Tesla), we now have batteries that are way more efficient that before in several ways: power density (they take less space for the same power), stability (even if batteries are still dangerous to a certain extent, a lot of progress has been made), durability (it’s good to have powerful batteries, but it’s even better if they can stay efficient for a long time) and most importantly the price: Bloomberg estimates that between 2010 and 2016, the cost of 1 kWh of lithium-ion battery dropped from USD$1000 to USD$273 (a drop of 73%). All of this now makes it possible to consider flying electric, which was still a dream ten years ago. And electric planes shouldn’t be seen as a plane to which you have changed the motor because it allows more than that. First, electric motors have a power-to-weight ratio (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power-to-weight_ratio) which is way more important than traditional combustion motors: for instance, the Cessna 172 works with a Lycoming O-360 motor that has a 1.15kW/kg power-to-weight ratio whereas electric motors can have more than 10 kW/kg (like the EMRAX 168 that has 11.5kW/kg). Although this comes with the price of larger batteries, this allows new things like the ability to gimbal the motor to achieve VTOL (vertical take-off and landing), a technology that was more difficult with traditional engines. But it also reduces the cost of maintenance and the cost of operation by a lot: according to some estimates, maintaining an electric car will cost about one-third the current price of maintaining a gasoline-powered car, and we can imagine that it will be the same with aircrafts.

All of this technology will undoubtedly allow for a revolution in the industry. So why aren’t we already flying electric? It is because of two things: time to market and durability. Let’s take for example the smartphones: this is probably the industry where we have seen the most radical evolution in the last decade (eleven years ago, the iPhone didn’t even exist, and now it’s almost as powerful as our computers). It is possible because smartphones take a short time to market: big players like Apple and Samsung can come out with a new model every year. Also, we change our smartphones more often that we change our cars or our dishwasher, meaning that the lifetime is much shorter. Now think of planes: it can take more than 20 years to put a new aircraft on the market because of the criticality of the technology, the regulation but also the complexity. Also, it’s not uncommon to use planes that are more than 50 years old. Just imagine for a second using a 50 years-old phone! These two factors make it challenging to be disruptive rather than going incremental, and the aviation is an industry where you don’t want to take too many risks. All of this is to say that the electric revolution of aircrafts is possible but that it will take time. Fortunately, it has already begun, and some electric planes are already flying, which is very exciting for the future!

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