Drones, VTOL aircraft, and small 2-seater aircraft – things are underway on various fronts when it comes to the development of electric aviation in Sweden. We shouldn’t expect to fly across the globe in an electric aircraft, but the future looks bright for fast and sustainable short-hop flights.
Electric aviation and its development are relatively new and incompletely investigated. There is already a massive commercial market for one type of electric aircraft, namely uncrewed aerial vehicles (drones), which are used for inspecting power lines, advanced aerial photography, or for collecting data in other ways.
However, there are also electric passenger aircraft.
– “One aircraft currently available on the global market is a small 2-seater that is used by flight schools to learn about how the technology works,” says Hampus Alfredsson, Researcher in Electromobility at RISE. “Then you have Heart Aerospace, which is developing a 19-passenger, battery-powered, electric regional airliner. The company antic pates the aircraft to be ready and certified for commercial operation by 2026. They are among those who have come the furthest, then there are others who look at other solutions, such as Katla Aero with its vertical take-off and landing aircraft.”
Can take over shorter routes
Flying long distances with large aircraft like today will not be possible with electric aircraft, at least not any time soon. Electric aviation can make a difference primarily with regard to smaller aircraft and shorter distances.
– “It is particularly suitable in Sweden and the Nordic region, where we have a lot of rural areas and plenty of geographical barriers that make it difficult to travel relatively short distances quickly,” says Alfredsson.
But these short routes should not to be overlooked – according to a report by the IPCC, around 40% of CO2 emissions generated by aviation come from short routes no longer that 2,000 kilometres. At the same time, air traffic today is organised so that larger aircraft with many passengers fly shorter routes through major cities through which all flights are routed, in order for the flight to support itself economically.
– “It’s apparent that smaller electric aircraft could be a factor that changes the equation somewhat. They potentially have much lower fuel and maintenance costs, and the electric engines are significantly cheaper, which can result in us being able to operate small electric planes on shorter routes as cost-effectively as conventional large aircraft.”
Aircraft have remained the same for a long time. The last major innovation was actually the jet engine
Transport aircraft already on the market – but more uses exist
One of the operators mentioned by Alfredsson, Katla Aero, has developed an electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, which takes off like a helicopter but flies like a regular plane.
Although we will not see electric aircraft on long routes, Gustav Borgefalk, Co-founder of Katla Aero, also believes that electric aviation will soon be able to compete with the ground transport of goods and, further down the line, also passenger transport:
– “Aircraft have remained the same for a long time. The last major innovation was actually the jet engine in the 1950s, which made the world ten times smaller.”
A smaller electric aircraft capable of lifting up to ten kilograms will be on the market as early as this year, while Katla Aero expects that the slightly larger aircraft – which can carry two people – will be ready by 2025.
– “The aircraft has a theoretical range of 200 kilometres, which is not an insignificant distance,” says Borgefalk. “Along with a top speed of 400 kilometres an hour. In addition to passenger transport, this will enable, for example, fast and sustainable transport of medical samples or organs.”
Down the line, this type of electric aircraft may see even more widespread use, particularly in rural areas.
– “You can have your Katla on your archipelago island, privately, as a shared resource or as an on-demand service as part of a public network. We believe that it will make it possible to live and work in remote areas in a whole new way.”
Batteries or fuel cells?
According to Anders Lundbladh, Specialist for Whole Engine Analysis at GKN Aerospace, the battery-powered passenger aircraft faces two challenges: although aircraft larger than the 2-seaters on the market can be built, the problem lies in how far they can fly – and how fast.
– “We need to increase both the speed and range, and there must be enough reserves to safeguard flights in all weather conditions. This is difficult with today’s batteries – everything becomes heavy and expensive.”
The alternative to batteries today is the fuel cell, which contains more energy than batteries do. So can’t you simply build the same aircraft using that technology instead?
– “Yes and no,” says Lundbladh. “Different technologies engender different problems. The batteries provide a lot of power over a short time, while the fuel cell produces low power for a long time. So you can fly for longer periods, but at a limited speed – so far no faster than 150 kilometres per hour other than in short spurts.”
So which technology will have its problems solved first? According to Lundbladh, fuels cells are closer from a technical point of view. But in terms of the market, electric aircraft have better opportunities. Delivering hydrogen to airports can be a complicated matter, and it’s also expensive to store.
“The definite advantage batteries have is that the energy efficiency is very high, you get out almost everything you put into charging the battery – almost 80 percent reaches the propeller. If you can fly on batteries, it is preferable. But I dare not promise any trans-Atlantic flights – maybe we can fly to Gotland.”
Omvärldsanalys: Internationell forskning och finansiering för elflyg
RISE har tagit fram en omvärldsanalys för Trafikverket som ger en överblick över satsningar från forskningsfinansiärer, pågående och avslutade forskningsprojekt samt framåtblickande forskningsagendor, strategier och färdplaner. Rapportens fokus ligger på EU samt nationella satsningar i Tyskland, Frankrike, Storbritannien och USA.