Ampaire's "Electric EEL" aircraft completes a demonstration flight over Maui. (Ampaire)
While Uber Elevate's acquisition by Joby Aviation and Joby's subsequent military airworthiness approval dominated aviation industry and mainstream technology headlines last week, three other companies developing electric and hybrid-electric aircraft–Ampaire, Hyundai, and Volocopter–confirmed new program milestones. Here, Aviation Today provides an overview of the three companies and their latest advancements toward enabling electric flight operations in the near future.
Ampaire founder and CEO Kevin Noertker stands with the company's electrified Cessna 337. (Ampaire)
California-based electric aviation power company Ampaire became the first to complete a demonstration flight of a hybrid-electric aircraft along an actual airline route, according to a Dec. 9 press release. The first demonstration occurred in Hawaii on Nov. 22, completing a 20-minute flight between Maui’s Kahului Airport across the island to Hana and back on a single charge.
The demonstration marks a major milestone for Ampaire, occurring 17 months after the maiden flight of their electrified Cessna 337 above California's Camarillo Airport. Now, Ampaire is flying an upgraded version of the 337 with a 300-horsepower piston engine in the rear and a 160 kilowatt-capable (kW) electric power unit in front. Ampaire has also installed a battery pack in what they describe as an under-fuselage aero-optimized shell.
"This is an interesting configuration, where the plane has two propellers one in the nose and one in the tail," Ampaire CEO Kevin Noertker said in a video statement published with the release. "What we've done is to remove a combustion engine from the nose of the plane, an integrated a fully-electric drive train that runs in parallel to the combustion engine that's turning the other propeller. So here you have a parallel hybrid plane, first of its kind in the world, and flying incredibly efficiently.
Operating under the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Experimental-Market Survey category and funded by Elemental Excelerator, Ampaire will be operating the demonstration flights once a month in partnership with Hawaiian regional carrier Mokulele Airlines. The flight trials are also supported by a 208-volt three-phase outlet that has been installed in a hangar operated by Mokulele.
The companies are also working with the Hawaii Department of Transportation and the Hawaiian Electric Company to explore longer-term infrastructure solutions to support a fleet of hybrid- or fully-electric aircraft.
"As the large airlines are hit finically they're going to recoil and reduce their service offerings to fewer destinations and fewer flights consolidating down," Noertker said, commenting on the regional flying opportunities that he believes a post-COVID-19 recovery will bring to air transportation.
"But what about all those communities that they aren't going to serve anymore? Those communities still have people and a need to receive or send goods and that's where regional air transport comes in. Especially when we can provide them an improved service with a lower cost of operation," he added.
Both Noertker and Stan Little, CEO of Southern Airways which operates one of the largest commuter airlines in the U.S. and owns Mokulele Airlines, believe Mokulele could start operating passenger-carrying hybrid-electric flights as soon as 2022.
"In addition to test flying the aircraft in Hawaii in 2020 we intend to be the first airline to put the aircraft into service possibly as early as 2022 or 2023," Little said.
Volocopter expects to launch eVTOL operations in Singapore within the next three years. (Volocopter)
Volocopter committed to launching its first air taxi services in Singapore, as the German electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) maker expects to start operating the first routes there within the next three years.
In preparation for the launch, Volocopter has founded Volocopter Asia Holding and hired Hon Lung Chu as its Head of Asia Pacific in Singapore, according to a Dec. 9 press release.
“Singapore is renowned for its leading role in adapting and living new technologies. Our successful cooperation with EDB, MOT, and CAAS on our previous flight has shown that there is no better place in Asia to launch our electric air taxi services than in Singapore,” said Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter. “The city’s research institutes conducting R&D play an integral part in this. Topics like route validation for autonomous operations, material science, and research regarding battery technology are very important for our long-term business success.”
Under a working arrangement on airworthiness certification established between the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Volocopter will obtain approval for its VoloCity air taxi through CAAS.
VoloCity is the company's fourth-generation eVTOL aircraft, with a range of 35 km and an airspeed of 110 km/h. The aircraft uses Intel’s Falcon 8+ commercial drone flight control and sensor technology. On the infrastructure side, Volocopter plans on using "Voloports" to provide recharging.
The first VoloCity operational route in Singapore is planned to occur along the southern shore with views of the Marina Bay skyline. In September, Volocopter opened purchasing for its first 1,000 reservations, with plans for 15-minute flights at a cost of €300, which can be reserved for €30 and redeemed within the first 12 months of commercial launch.
“Urban Air Mobility is an emerging area within the broader mobility sector, which we have identified as a growth industry for Singapore,” said Mr. Tan Kong Hwee, Executive Vice President, EDB. “Singapore is an important regional testbed for autonomous cars, electric vehicles, and Urban Air Mobility, including the successful test flight by Volocopter in 2019. We are glad that Volocopter has chosen Singapore to anchor its commercial and R&D activities. This will help build new capabilities for our mobility ecosystem and create many exciting opportunities for Singapore.”
Volocopter plans to hire a team of 50 pilots, engineers, operation specialists, and business managers to enable their first air taxi operations.
Hyundai unveiled its prototype eVTOL aircraft during the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Hyundai)
Upon publishing its new "Strategy 2025" roadmap around next-generation electric vehicle development, Hyundai provided some details about its roadmap for eVTOL development.
According to the strategy, Hyundai plans on developing "a family of air vehicles both in passenger and cargo areas," and a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain for UAM as well. The company plans to introduce an air cargo unmanned aircraft system (UAS) with a hybrid powertrain by 2026, according to a Dec. 10 press release. That will be followed by the launch of an all-electric eVTOL model designed for intra-city operations in 2028.
In the 2030s, the company plans to launch regional air mobility that connects adjacent cities.
"From the initial stage of development, Hyundai will design its UAM models with a focus on scalable commercial production. In addition, the company plans to develop hydrogen powertrain for aviation using Hyundai’s own fuel cell technology that can offer unrivaled efficiency and flight range," Hyundai said in the release.
The automotive company unveiled its S-A1 eVTOL concept aircraft with a mockup on display during the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. S-A1 is an all-electric aircraft with four stationary rotors for takeoff and landing and four tilting rotors for wing-borne lift in cruise. Hyundai intends the aircraft to reach speeds up to 180 miles per hour, a maximum cruise altitude of 1,000-2,000 feet, and make trips up to 60 miles while carrying four passengers plus luggage.
“The year 2020 has been the first year to implement our Strategy 2025. Despite a challenging business environment caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have successfully established the foundation for business growth for the next five years," said President and CEO Wonhee Lee. “Along with our relentless efforts to improve profitability, Hyundai Motor will continue to make mid-to-long-term investments to lay the foundation for sustainable growth in the upcoming years.”