When will we have electric aeroplanes?

Jon Lawson

The Spirit of Innovation aircraft has moved another step closer to a flying reality. Designer Rolls-Royce has successfully completed the taxiing phase of the testing at Gloucester Airport in western England. 

Rob Watson, Director at Rolls-Royce Electrical said: “Electrification of flight is an important part of our sustainability strategy as we aim for net zero carbon by 2050. Taxiing of the Spirit of Innovation is an incredible milestone for the Accelerating the Electrification of Flight (ACCEL) team as we progress to the first flight and the world-record attempt later this year. For the first time, the plane propelled itself forward using the power from an advanced battery and propulsion system that is ground-breaking in terms of electrical technology.”

The ambition is to use the 500hp (400kw) electric powertrain to push the plane to more than 300mph, setting a new world speed record for electric flight. 

Minister for Business Paul Scully added “The taxiing forms part of an exciting new chapter in aviation as we move towards its first flight in the spring. This pioneering aircraft highlights the value of close collaboration between industry and government. The UK is committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Through government grants for research and development, we’re championing innovation in the aerospace sector to meet this ambitious target as we build back greener from the pandemic.”

How will electric aeroplanes work?

Aesthetically, being a propeller plane it’s a mix of old and new. The conventional prop is driven by three high-power density axial electric motors and compared to a traditional plane, the blades spin at a lower RPM to deliver a more stable and quieter ride. The powertrain is designed to deliver power with 90% energy efficiency. 

The set up was first tested on a ground-anchored rig dubbed ‘The ionBird’. It was run at 2,400RPM, the speed calculated to propel the machine into the record books, by the 6,000 cell battery pack. Dozens of sensors recorded huge amounts of information for off-site analysis. 

As well as a record breaker, Rolls-Royce intend to use the plane as a test-bed for the technology behind the next generation of commuter planes and air taxis. 

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