Although racing airplanes for sport has been a popular pastime around the world since the 1930s, its essential technology hasn’t changed much. Although computer design and engineering have greatly enhanced race planes’ thrust, economy, and maneuverability, the air racers still rely on petroleum-fueled propeller engines the way they did decades ago.
One entrepreneur is looking to fundamentally change the equation as soon as next year. He’s attempting to make air racing leapfrog past hybrid EVs and biofuels and go straight to all-electric propulsion.
“So, what we’re doing is taking the Formula One Air Racing rules,” says Jeff Zaltman, CEO of Dubai-headquartered Air Race Events, “and just changing the parts relevant to the propulsion system [so they run on electricity].” Zaltman adds that “We’re trying to change as little as possible as a starting point so the sport can transfer and migrate very easily.”
Air Race Events is currently scouting out a location to host the first ever event for Air Race E, the moniker given to the new, all-electric air racing division. (Expect an announcement, Zaltman says, by the end of the year or the beginning of 2020.)
At present, Zaltman is trying to get the word out to designers, engineers, pilots, aeronautical enthusiasts, and tech-loving climate hawks. To his pleasant surprise, Zaltman says he’s already fielded more than 100 queries about starting or joining electric air race teams.
“I [didn’t know] 90 percent of these people, and they [have] nothing to do with our industry,” he says.
“They’re from all over. Some of these are groups of university engineering students. Some are coming from motorcycle electric racing. Some are coming from big aerospace companies, and they have their expertise in a professional manner. But they want to try their hand as individuals. Others are in manufacturing companies, some of the biggest in the world. Others are electric propulsion product manufacturers looking for a place to test their equipment.”
Zaltman says that should an inaugural Air Race E race take place sometime in late 2020, he hopes to see the field coalesce into between eight and 16 teams that would design and build electric racers and ultimately compete for the prize cup.
To help potential team members find their ideal teammates—with pilots seeking engineers, who seek manufacturers, who seek parts suppliers and sponsors, et cetera—Air Race E has an active online forum that Zaltman urges anyone interested to join.
Air Race Events, which has sponsored conventional, petroleum-fueled air races in China, Thailand, Tunisia, Spain, and the United States, says the ultimate goal is to grow Air Race E into an international competition that could support multiple races and events in different regions of the world.
As with race cars that zoom along the blacktop, the winner of an Air Race E event featuring electric-powered planes will be the pilot who can make a series of left turns faster than the competition can.Illustration: Air Race E
But the starting point, he says, is to reiterate what’s already been demonstrated: The transition from fossil-fueled to electric racers can be successful—as has been the case with the evolution to electric racecars from their petroleum-fueled predecessors.
“Formula E car racing started out with almost the same vehicle as [Formula One],” Zaltman says. But over time, he says, the Formula E race organizers have enabled more leeway in electrical inverters, motors, batteries and other elements.
The chief challenge in Air Race E, Zaltman predicts, would be the same as designers would face with any electric aircraft: How to propel a big, heavy battery through the sky?
Zaltman estimates that it will take roughly 20 kilowatt-hours of energy storage to thrust a competitive racer through a typical course. The battery alone, using current technology, would weigh 100 kilograms, Zaltman says. Considering that an entire conventional Formula One air racer can weigh as little as 225 kg, Air Race E teams are going to be very interested in battery design and optimization. Whoever rises to that challenge may have a breakthrough innovation with applications that extend further than air racing.
Zaltman says he’s still working to attract sponsors, which will answer the question of whether the Air Race E cup will carry any prize money. (He says he’s weighing the competing choices of using sponsor funds to offer a big payout versus building up a fund that will yield a sustainable competition comprising multiple races per year around the world.)
“This is probably the first time in a couple generations where air racing can directly lead to the actual developments in the marketplace and for products that will lead to market,” Zaltman says. “We’re at a new envelope for that to happen—a new heyday.”
This story was updated on 8 May 2019.
Margo Anderson is the news manager at IEEE Spectrum. She has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s degree in astrophysics.