Home Technology No fast vertical take-off: where the hurdles lie for these electric airplanes

No fast vertical take-off: where the hurdles lie for these electric airplanes

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No fast vertical take-off: where the hurdles lie for these electric airplanes

The future of modern electric aircraft will come gradually rather than by vertical takeoff. For example, the start-up Beta Technologies recently postponed the premiere of its futuristic model, which can take off and land vertically like a helicopter. Instead, the company said it would have a more conventional version of its electric aircraft, dubbed the CX300, certified by 2025.

Beta is among a growing number of companies building small electric airplanes for few passengers or small loads and short distances. Many of these belong to the class of so-called eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing), which can take off and land without conventional runways.

“We’re trying to make the future of aviation sustainable, and that’s a big, ambitious goal,” said Beta founder and CEO Kyle Clark. The company has focused primarily on cargo transportation, raising over $800 million and winning orders for its eVTOL aircraft from the likes of UPS, Blade and Air New Zealand. In 2021 Amazon had also contributed money.

Aviation is now responsible for about three percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the industry’s contribution to climate change is increasing. Electric aircraft could help reduce these emissions, but the industry still faces technical and regulatory hurdles. That’s one reason Beta starts with planes that feel less like air taxis and more like airplanes.

Beta has flown more than 35,000 kilometers of test flights with its CX300 electric aircraft, both near its base in Vermont and over long distances. According to the company, ranges of up to 620 kilometers were possible with one charge. Among the flights completed, the start-up refers to trips of 2,200 kilometers to the US state of Arkansas and 1,200 kilometers to Kentucky. For the route from Plattsburgh in upstate New York to Arkansas, Beta made seven charging stops. Flights of between 255 kilometers and 339 kilometers were possible with one charge.

Beta is pursuing electric flight “in an extremely pragmatic way that doesn’t need three or four miracles happening at once,” says CEO Clark, referring to both the technical challenges of the next generation of electric aircraft and the regulatory hurdles facing the industry still to come.

According to Beta Technologies, the high-flyer called ALIA-250 will also become a conventional, certified electric aircraft, the CX300, by 2025.
(Image: Beta Technologies)

Several of the largest eVTOL startups have announced plans to start commercial operations in 2025. These plans are subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US regulator of civil aviation. “Safety will dictate the timeline for certification, but we could see these aircraft in the air by 2024 or 2025,” the FAA writes.

New eVTOL aircraft are subject to a different FAA certification system than conventional aircraft. Because of this particular process, some in the industry doubt the agency or the companies will be able to meet the announced deadlines.

Beta plans to certify its eVTOL aircraft for operation in 2026. However, some experts believe that the agency could take as much as the next decade to issue approvals. “Certification will take longer, probably to 2027 or 2028,” says Matthew Clarke, an aerospace postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “The conventional electric planes will take off first”.

Using batteries is a common tactic to make transport more climate-friendly. The share of electric cars in new car sales was around 13 percent in 2022. Buses, trains and ships could also be powered by batteries, at least in some scenarios. However, aviation will have a harder time following this path, mainly because batteries are heavy.

Every gram counts for vehicles that have to circle thousands of meters in the air. Larger aircraft that need to travel longer distances require larger and heavier batteries, which is why most electric aviation efforts have so far focused on smaller aircraft.

Beta’s conventional electric aircraft will also be small, and the company is focused on short-haul passenger flights and cargo transportation. Other companies like Harbor Air and Eviation are taking a similar approach, focusing on building conventional electric alternatives to small aircraft.

However, smaller aircraft make up only a small part of traffic today: In passenger traffic, commuter aircraft with 19 seats or fewer account for only about four percent of all departures and about 0.03 percent of revenue passenger-kilometres. This is a measure of the total of money, passengers and distance flown. So batteries would have a bigger impact on aviation if smaller planes played a bigger role. Hence the undying dream of eVTOLs.

Aside from the potential climate benefits over fossil fuel-powered aircraft, eVTOLs could also expand flight capabilities, Clarke said. Since they do not require a runway, the planes could be used for last-mile delivery of cargo, travel to densely populated areas, or military applications. That flexibility is part of the appeal that is pouring billions of dollars into eVTOL startups like Joby, Archer, and Lilium.

However, there are still many questions about eVTOLs: where they will land and how much noise they will make, to how they will affect the climate compared to ground-based transport options. Conventional-looking electric aircraft could serve as placeholders as the industry finds the answers to these questions. But however they fly, fossil fuel-free planes will be part of the climate puzzle. “If we do nothing, by 2035 aviation will be the largest contributor to carbon emissions from transportation,” says Clark. “We won’t allow that.”


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