The U.S. Might Not Lead In Electric Flight

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Sometimes it seems to me that one of the biggest challenges facing American innovators in the pursuit of practical electric aircraft may simply be how American business works. For a long time now, I've been talking to some key U.S. players in this game of private electric aircraft development and one thing seems clear. If these people would just work together we'd probably have a fairly reasonable product by now.

But business is mostly about competition, not cooperation. So, here we are awaiting the dawn of practical personal electric aviation ... mostly because of batteries (we need better ones) ... but also because here in the U.S. one genius won't work with the other genius because they figure that if they do, the other will steal the shirt off his back and feed it to him. That's business. It's just not particularly good for progress.

To the point: I've been in contact with the player in the U.S. who may be best positioned to create the best airframe for the job; another who likely has the best controller and powerplant; and another that may be best equipped to get the product to market. They're each pursuing their own electric aircraft and each have specialized and deep knowledge that fills in and complements the other. As it is, all these people are in competition. In a lot of cases, that means they're all trying to learn from scratch for themselves things the other already knows.

Some of the best and brightest in U.S. electric flight are just as busy innovating as they are shielding each other from their own proprietary designs and patents, plans for distribution control ... and potential profits. And they're all in pursuit of what physical laws and practicality dictate will essentially be the same two-seat electric aircraft. It's like they're all hacking their way through the jungle on their own, headed for the same destination. The process all but guarantees they'll get there later, and with substantially less finesse, than if they'd been working together on the same path while sharing information. Sure, we'll get a product out of it. We'll just get it later, and rougher than it could have been with a little cooperation.

It is what it is and this system has somehow managed to beat out a lot of others through the years. And if it does that again this time, time will resolve the development issues that lack of teamwork leaves behind. Besides, as I mentioned, battery technology still needs time to develop.

But the real bear in this race is that there are places in the world that don't play by these rules. And if anyone, anywhere, manages to collect a group of people like the ones I mentioned, funds them and persuades them to cooperate with one another they'll beat the pants off of the U.S. individuals all fighting to be the one at the top. If there's an upside to that equation it may be this: if there is a big winner, at least we'll see them at OSH.

Comments (37)

I hope your not suggestng that we have the government decide which companies should be put together and funded. Selection would then be based on political, rather than technical, savvy and we'd be worse off than now.

Posted by: Alan Finger | July 20, 2009 7:03 AM    Report this comment

Actually you have it backwards, itís competition that spurs innovation. As for why we donít have an affordable electric plane? The same reason most piston engines donít have FADEC control, too small a market to justify the cost of jumping through all the very expensive hoops to bring it to market.

Posted by: daniel schultz | July 20, 2009 7:33 AM    Report this comment

Some thougts; Electricity, just may be the wrong power source for the application. "Nano" might solve the power to weight problem. Corporate funding at the university level secures the results for private rewards. From the very begining aviation has been a for profit venture. The breakthroughs have always been from obsessed individuals whom rarely profited. The key is motivation and as Mr. Schultz points out, it's a very small market. Mr. Finger forgets the giant leaps forward from governmental sponsership. There might be a "black" program that solves all of the problems. I hope so. People do have a "whats in it for me?" motive that must be addressed. Still, there is also the "fun factor" and that may embrace electricity. 'Chutes and kites and motor gliders come to mind.

Posted by: Larry Fries | July 20, 2009 12:10 PM    Report this comment

I wonder if anyone remembers how space exploration and the atom bomb came to be realities in our world. That aside, of course the market is small. The market is defined by the better alternative. For us, that's fossil power ... just like how the previously liquid-fueled remote-controlled aircraft market is now dominated by electric power.

Chutes and trikes and motor gliders are likely just be the beginning.

Posted by: Glenn Pew | July 20, 2009 1:56 PM    Report this comment

I donít know if any private companies profited from the Manhattan Project, but the companies who were and still are involved in the space program most certainly profit from the government contracts.

Posted by: daniel schultz | July 20, 2009 3:51 PM    Report this comment

Ask the French or perhaps the Japanees if they profit from the Manhattan Project. Ask any computer sellers or outfitters if they profit from the space race. These things and a mutitude of others are a direct spinoff from projects of the Government. Even your favorite topic is the result of war games. Own a "cell" phone or a GPS?

Posted by: Larry Fries | July 20, 2009 7:28 PM    Report this comment

Why is an electric airplane so attractive? The energy, stored or not, comes from somewhere. I think it is kind of a cool aspiration, but where does it get us really. Electricity for the batteries comes either from fossil fuel or nuclear, now. Big deal, if we make an electric plane...or car. The energy comes from the same sources we've been using. Electric motors and batteries have advanced, and will continue. The physics are pretty much centuries old actually, and not that exciting. Sure, let's build some e-planes (we do it in R/C modelling). Unless the performance is equal or better than a Piper Arrow with current powerplants, forget it. There is little advantage to an electric anything as long as the source of that electricity is based on the same fuel (fossil) that you would put in the wings anyway. Sorry if I don't get the advantage here. If we are nuclear as a country, and can put large airplanes in the air with electric powerplants using great new batteries; well then terrific! We aren't even CLOSE.

Posted by: eric hanson | July 21, 2009 5:47 AM    Report this comment

Why is an electric airplane so attractive? The energy, stored or not, comes from somewhere. I think it is kind of a cool aspiration, but where does it get us really. Electricity for the batteries comes either from fossil fuel or nuclear, now. Big deal, if we make an electric plane...or car. The energy comes from the same sources we've been using. Electric motors and batteries have advanced, and will continue. The physics are pretty much centuries old actually, and not that exciting. Sure, let's build some e-planes (we do it in R/C modelling). Unless the performance is equal or better than a Piper Arrow with current powerplants, forget it. There is little advantage to an electric anything as long as the source of that electricity is based on the same fuel (fossil) that you would put in the wings anyway. Sorry if I don't get the advantage here. If we are nuclear as a country, and can put large airplanes in the air with electric powerplants using great new batteries; well then terrific! We aren't even CLOSE.

Posted by: eric hanson | July 21, 2009 5:47 AM    Report this comment

True, our present system is a sort of shotgun approach, but it encourages innovation and incentive to solve the problem. Electric airplanes are cool, they are quiet, somewhat ecologically friendly and excitingly different. But as others point out, they really may not be the best answer. A massive co-operative venture may well get us an electric airplane sooner but it may also be a mad rush in the wrong direction. Other propulsion technology might well make the electric airplane a dinosaur. Sometimes unity is the answer but just as often diversity rules. On the other hand if they could make an electric motor that sounded like a big radial....

Posted by: Richard Montague | July 21, 2009 8:23 AM    Report this comment

If you understand the energy density, and incumbant power extraction from jet fuel (far less refined than gasoline for automobiles..essentially kerosene with additives for anti-icing in fuel lines at altitude), than you realize how difficult a substitue is. You just can't duplicate the thrust of a GE or Rolls Royce turbofan using fossil fuel. The technology of current turbofans is far beyond the appreciation of most (titanium turbine section now, and ceramics being part of further high-temp increasment in efficiency). We really have improved autos and aircraft incredibly to this date! I don't feel all that bad about where the hearts and minds are in industry today, surprising actually?!

Posted by: eric hanson | July 21, 2009 9:03 AM    Report this comment

A fuel cell powered car is already running around and looking good (thanx Honda). It is a global world of ideas and solutions. In India the use of manure is staggering, yes to produce electricity directly.

Who really cares where the solutions come from? There may be whole new ways to stink up the sky but we need not have to be first to do it. Whether from a giant corporation or some dusty student on a bike, if the good old USA got behind producing it we could darken the sky.

Posted by: Larry Fries | July 21, 2009 12:42 PM    Report this comment

15 years ago RC modelers said the same thing about electrics - overweight underperforming pigs. Now the RC market is dominated by electrics thanks primarily to the availability of lithium polymer batteries.

In the full scale world there are potential advantages. Noise reduction. Density altitude effects. And when the power in your batteries is generated by a coal fired plant as an example, it is much easier to control pollutants released into the atmosphere compared with burning leaded gasoline in your Lycosaur.

Having said that I'm not really sure what all the hoopla is about electric aircraft at this point. The battery technology to make it truly practical simply doesnt exist yet. Until there is a practical and affordable electric car (where the market is large enough to fund the development) I think electric airplanes are just a gimmick with a few exceptions such as self launching sailplanes.

Posted by: Mike Wills | July 21, 2009 1:38 PM    Report this comment

Lw mentions fuel cells. Here again Hydrogen is only an energy "carrier" it takes tons of traditional energy to crack water into Hydrogen and oxygen. The old methanol/nitro engines in model airplanes still pack more energy than their electric counterparts per weight. Electrics in models also continuously lose power as the batteries run down, unlike wet fuel that performs the same to the end (and the end takes longer to get there. I think the environmental impact of the batteries themselves can't be ignored. I do think we could get rid of lead in GA, but most of the planes are old and need it for the valve seats. The industry probably won't allow obsulescence of three fourths of the fleet, I would guess.

Posted by: eric hanson | July 21, 2009 7:53 PM    Report this comment

The Icelanders are using geothermal energy and our war boats are using nuclear to capture hydrogen. BMW and others have internal combustion engines that rival other fuels. The suttle loves it. Clean stuff. I assume you refer to tetraethyl lead which deposits itself in all of the wrong places including the valve guides. But that has nothing to do with electric airplanes. What about that 2012 thing?

Posted by: Larry Fries | July 21, 2009 8:30 PM    Report this comment

As usual you make no sense, add nothing intelligent to the conversation..LW. I am clapping because you can spell tetraethyl lead and not "subtle". Quote: "BMW and others have internal combustion engines that rival other fuels". That, my friend, is a non-sequitar! The sentence is meaningless. You are wasting all of our time. Lead may deposit itself in unwanted places. It is, however, needed to cushion the valves in their seats (it builds up as a soft metal). The main use of it, however, is to increase octane. Oh yes, thanks for telling us all that Icelanders are using geothermal energy (can I clap like a "Sea World seal" for you)! So what! You add nothing intelligent as usual.

Posted by: eric hanson | July 22, 2009 12:23 AM    Report this comment

Hereís my tuppence worth. To have a simple aircraft say a Quickie Q2 or Dragon Fly with 48Kw (64hp) motor flying at 140knots (65% power) would require using lithium-ion battery 500 litres of space 500Kg weight and will cost about $42,857,00. The duration and range would be about 4.6 hours and 644nm.

Now the trick is to have solar panels on top of the wings and fuselage to recharge the lithium-ion and if left to its own devices would take about 2000 hours (about 200 days of good sun light) for a full recharge from empty.

Thatís present day technology? Is it?

I remember the Viking space craft was fitted with a thermal battery using nuclear isotopes and would produce about 100Kw with a life cycle of five years. All this inside a package the size of a grapefruit.

Now that as a battery would satisfy our power needs for aircraft! What is happening in the real world? Where are all those good ideas?

The Oil companies have not made their ROIís (return on investments) so nothing new will appear until that happens. The oil companies hold many patents for water to be used as fuel and not just the standard electrolyses ideas. I know of one person who lost his life because he would not sell his idea to the oil company. He developed a special injector that was able to make water work instead of gas (petrol).

Posted by: Bruce Savage | July 22, 2009 4:44 AM    Report this comment

"black helicopters" stuff again...ooooh scarry. Sounded knowledgeable until you got to the "water power" garbage. I hope most of us can seperate the credible from the incredible. I am sure we'll have some decent electric small planes. You still burn coal to charge 'em (or use Uranium).

Posted by: eric hanson | July 22, 2009 9:48 AM    Report this comment

Eric do you know what happens to water when it reachs 800 deg c if not go and ask someone working in a power station might just open your eyes to the power of water. Oh did you know water is the third biggest killer after cancer and motorcars :-)So if we dont eat and dont drink we die health.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | July 22, 2009 10:40 AM    Report this comment

I thought the 85MPG carburetor conspiracy theory died 25 years ago, but I guess not?

Eric, I agree that in the RC world, wet fuel still provides more energy density than does electric. And yet RC was a withering hobby with little new blood, actually much like the current state of affairs in general aviation, until the advent of practical electric RC systems. A number of advantages outweigh the energy density disadvantage, primarily convenience and to some degree novelty (which probably also explains the excitement over manned electric aircraft).

In the RC world electrics have arrived, are practical, and have rejuvenated a dying hobby. This was made possible by battery development driven/funded by a much larger market sector than the niche RC market. Manned electrics wont become practical until something comparable happens with battery development suitable for the application. If/when that happens electrics probably will still not be competitive with wet fuel as far as energy density is concerned, but other advantages may over shadow that shortcoming.

Posted by: Mike Wills | July 22, 2009 10:42 AM    Report this comment

Eric's comments about the non-viability of electric power are quite Somewhere down the road the fossil fuels of choice for aviation will be exhausted or in such short supply that the cost will be too much to bear. Electric power offers the potential to tap different sources of primary enery...coal, natural gas, nuclear, and even wind and solar. The longer we wait to develop electric power the longer it will be before it becomes practical. As it is we are about one good breakthrough in battery technology away from having a practical e-plane now.


Posted by: Charles Radford | July 23, 2009 8:15 AM    Report this comment

One other comment I meant to make. I find it funny how anytime the topic involves the transition of aircraft from a boutique fuel - 100LL - to using the same gasoline that the rest of the world uses there are a flood of arguments as to why auto fuel cant possibly work in an aircraft. Many of the arguments center on the certification costs of the changes required to make it work. The roadblocks to auto fuel usage are bureacratic and historical folklore, but the technology exists now to make auto fuel work.

Yet when we talk about electric aircraft no mention is made of the same certification issues that will need to be addressed before we have a practical electric aircraft, technology challenges not withstanding.

Posted by: Mike Wills | July 23, 2009 4:44 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Wills; The pages I have read here, so far, show that the myths of aircraft and powerplants are not going away soon. There seems to be too many of us who do not know what we do not know. I guess that is why we have an experimental class. Sage words from some are just hedge statements. Like straight 50W is the ONLY breakin oil and aircraft engines will NOT last on unleaded. If we are still confronted by such resistance to facts, I agree with you. Look how long it took to embrace composits! Many really great designs were killed with overweight requirements because of ignorance alone. I'll stick by my guns for now and bet on the fuel cell for electric power.

Posted by: Larry Fries | July 23, 2009 10:29 PM    Report this comment

Yea well we have this problem and that is there has not been a war for so long and the bean counters are now getting bored. Because they have so much time on their hand they have to do something so they think of things to make peoples lives a misery.

The new bible is Health and Safety.

FAA and our CAA want to be seen as progressive and therefore seem to be encouraging the electric plane development but this will be limited and at some point someone will say that the batteries are too dangerous when there are temperature changes and put a stop to it all.

There is a ground swell of people wanting the population to only ride bicycles and stop any car or airplane usage. Even commercial travel is not agreeable to them but they will accept trains and busses. I wish those people would go and live in Chine for a while and see what it is like to live that way.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | July 24, 2009 3:32 AM    Report this comment

I agree with your comment on China Bruce. They apparently have very lax automotive pollution standards though.

The E-plane will eventually become a bigger segment but not in larger aircraft..I'm guessing. Jet engines develop horsepower according to T (thrust) times V(velocity). An electric powered prop or fan do not have this multiplication in efficiency. Electric fan's would not increase thrust with velocity as turbo fan/jets do. Commercial airliners will not replace with electric fans. The whole electric flight conversation ends at replacing jet engines because of the equation H.P.= T * V Which turbines use to advantage (with an electric fan thrust does not even maintain with increased velocity let alone increase). No battery technology can change this fundamental fact for replacing turbo jet/fan technology. Again, it is the thrust versus velocity curve comparison.

Posted by: eric hanson | July 24, 2009 2:42 PM    Report this comment

I may be mistaken, but I believe we are fighting a war now in Afghanistan and winding down one in Iraq. I'm not convinced that the government, through the FAA or any other arm, are pushing electric development. The government is reactionary - they rarely lead on anything.

We are going through a phase now where its popular to be seen as "green". Fed to a large degree by the media. There are certainly worse causes to get behind, nothing wrong with health and safety.

But I think the aviation media is missing the boat with all of the hype about electrics. There's another story in AvWeb today. I say again, we are a long ways from a practical electric airplane (assuming there will ever be one).

If we were serious about going green in gen av we'd instead focus in the short term on adopting the technology that has made cars orders of magnitude cleaner and more efficient than they were back in the 60s which is where our airplanes are today. The technology exists today.

Posted by: Mike Wills | July 24, 2009 3:46 PM    Report this comment

That is a somewhat disjointed argument mike. None the less, we can clean up our little airplanes. It just is so minor in volume and political attention that...who cares? It just doesn't measure up. Sorry, we're not that important. Good thing!

I guess no one wants to talk physics of jet engines?

Posted by: eric hanson | July 24, 2009 11:57 PM    Report this comment

Just you Eric. Since everyone else is on topic with electric engines.

Posted by: Larry Fries | July 25, 2009 12:35 AM    Report this comment

I'm not picking on mr. Wills. He is right that we can make some moves to improve future small GA aircraft. Again, you miss the point LW. If you don't think I am on topic by suggesting there may be no use of electric motors (not engines as you say), in large aircraft, than you can't follow the bouncing ball. I don't know what kind of cigarettes you smoke.

Posted by: eric hanson | July 25, 2009 3:16 AM    Report this comment

OK Eric, perhaps I can clarify my point(s).

1) I think there is validity in research into electric power, but I think any practical solution is so far off into the future that I think the aviation media is wasting bandwidth hyping it the way they are now.
2) I disagree with your contention that nobody cares about small airplanes as a contributor to environmental problems. I agree that the contribution is infinitesimal, but Gen Av is an easy target for politicos to score points with the environmentalists. We are getting a pass in burning leaded gasoline and it seems inevitable that 100LL will go away, probably sooner rather than later.
3) While the technology to develop a truly practical electric airplane is way off, the technology to clean up gasoline burning gen av aircraft to put them on par with current automobiles exists today.
4) Adopting those technologies would have the added benefit of weening us off of a boutique fuel and get us to burning the same fuel that millions of cars burn every day. Should drive our fuel costs lower and stabilize those costs to some degree.
5) I couldnt care less about the problems associated with jet engines. I'll probably never own one (though I've considered it a viable approach for a self launch sailplane). That's a problem unrelated to the typical small aircraft owner/operator such as myself.

Posted by: Mike Wills | July 27, 2009 10:44 AM    Report this comment

Thanks mike! I agree with most which you say. I Think you are realistic, and we can make some headway with our smaller GA aircraft! It may be a bit of a "red Herring", though. As far as your last point not caring about jet engines...well, that is the most significant factor in aviation. Talking about small GA emmissions is like talking about lawnmower emmisions (which really may be larger). It is perhaps more important to talk about where large commercial aviation will go in the future. I gaurantee it is NOT electric fans. The physics already say that is not possible. I appreciate your realistic tone on small GA electrics though. I guess we'll have a few in the mix as time goes on.

Posted by: eric hanson | July 27, 2009 11:26 PM    Report this comment

It makes a lot of sense to consider "small" GA planes rather igsignificant even with 100LL and a few Jet-A users. But we must remember that aside from the carriers and military ALL others are GA also. GA therefore is pumping TONS of kerosene and it's combustion leftovers throughout the atmosphere. If nothing else, we are using a finite resource just as ground transportation does. I'll bet the "food chain" will see our demise first. That should spur the electric alternative for the bunch of us little guys. Things are moving and in a mere 10 years who knows?

Posted by: Larry Fries | July 28, 2009 12:44 AM    Report this comment

Fries, when you have something intelligent to add I shall certainly chear you on. As of the last comment....not yet! I don't know where you come from, or your background, but your simplistic pompous "green" statements are not going to help understanding here. I don't think you are adding to the conversation. Your phrasing, writing, thinking..are all poor. Next..

Posted by: eric hanson | July 28, 2009 2:18 AM    Report this comment

Itís my experience that technology is normally in its development stage for fifteen years before itís released to the public. As I pointed out earlier it would take a batted (lithium ion) 500 litres or in American terms 130 US gals of space. GA aircraft usually carry maximum 40 gals of fossil fuels. Given that the weight of the batteries are 500Kgs (1100 lbs) which equates to 183 gals we have a problem with batteries.

Forget about jet as they consume much more fuel.

So the question is whatís in development now? Automobiles are coming out with some fancy alternatives to the internal combustion motor and the answer will more than likely be among them. We may need to wait 15 years and I for one will probably not be flying then.

Enjoy what you can when you can for time is our real enemy

Posted by: Bruce Savage | July 28, 2009 4:03 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: eric hanson | July 28, 2009 5:48 AM    Report this comment

You know Eric

Posted by: Bruce Savage | July 28, 2009 10:33 AM    Report this comment

Red herring or not, and regardless of whether or not Gen Av makes a measurable contribution to the environment, make no mistake. We are an easy and visible target. It makes no sense to try to use a logical argument with the environmental faction about our overall contribution when the only thing they see is that we are the only current users of leaded fuel. While it would make little difference in terms of addressing the real problem, burning the same fuels and using the same technologies that millions of cars use would make us less of a target.

I agree that jets are the major problem, but I see this as a seperate issue to be addressed in a different way. In spite of the much greater environmental problem that they create, commercial aviation doesnt get the scrutiny that gen av does.

Bruce, if your point is that any alternative powerplants for our gen av niche market will ultimately come from the automotive sector, I agree. And until we see truly practical and cost effective electric cars I think we are wasting bandwidth talking about electric airplanes.

Posted by: Mike Wills | July 28, 2009 12:56 PM    Report this comment

Mike I agree with you

Posted by: Bruce Savage | July 28, 2009 5:41 PM    Report this comment

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