The Airbus E-Fan took its first public test flight last month, making it the latest in a group of all-electric aircraft to take to the sky.
The flight was not just a media stunt. Airbus Group hopes to eventually develop a hybrid-electric regional plane that could seat 70 to 90 people, according to a report in Reuters. Developing such an aircraft, however, could take up to 20 years.
In the more near, term, Airbus sees a future for its E-Fan test plane. The composite, two-seater training aircraft is equipped with two lithium-ion polymer batteries (250 volts total) from KOKAM, a leading advanced battery maker, that are housed in the wings. The batteries provide 60 kilowatts of power to the plane's electric motors. The motors drive a variable pitch fan. The plane can fly for up to about 45 minutes, but Airbus says it can eventually get that flying time closer to an hour and 15 minutes.
There are various electric aircraft prototypes across the world, but the difference is that Airbus is one of the world’s leaders in commercial aircraft manufacturing. (Check out 10 Electric Planes to Watch). While the A380 isn't going to go electric anytime soon, any breakthroughs that Airbus develops in electric-powered planes could reverberate through its business.
Unlike some other electric aircraft, Airbus says that the E-Fan was built from the ground up to be electric rather than being based on existing fuel-powered airframes. For example, the landing gear is integrated into the fuselage for low drag, and the energy management and safety features were designed to be driven by electrical propulsion. There is a backup battery for emergency landing.
At the same time, the E-Fan needs to have flight parameters that are similar to existing training aircraft if it’s going to be used as a test plane. Ultimately, Airbus wants to construct a fleet of E-Fans and manufacture them close to the Bordeaux Airport in France. Production could start as early as 2017, according to Reuters.
Because the aircraft runs on electric motors, it emits no carbon dioxide during the flight and vibrates far less than a comparable fossil-fuel-powered plane. It is also quieter during take off and landing, which should be a benefit to communities surrounding test flight areas.
The investment in electric flight is spurred in part by the European Commission’s “Flightpath 2050” [PDF] which calls for a 75-percent reduction in aircraft CO2 emissions, a 90-percent drop in nitrous oxide emissions, and a 65-percent cut in noise levels compared with the respective numbers from the year 2000.
“It will not only lead to a further reduction in aircraft emissions and noise to support our environmental goals but will also lead to more economic and efficient aircraft technology in the long run,” Jean Botti, chief technical officer for Airbus Group, said in a statement.
The E-Fan will also make an appearance at the ILA Berlin and Farnborough airshows this year. Airbus has not released a projected cost for the electric plane.