AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - 85

P&E  TECHNOLOGY

Current affairs
The future is bright for electric aviation

JAMES CAREY

BY ERIC BERMAN

THESE ARE THE EARLY DAYS of manned
electric flight.
Ampaire's six-seat modified Cessna 337,
Bye Aerospace's forthcoming two- and fourseat all-electric trainers, and the recently
certified (in Europe) Pipistrel Velis Electro
show imagination and promise, and a wide
variety of eVTOLs are attracting major new
investments.
I'm an amateur in this space, but I think
I'm qualified to weigh in here. I am a (piston) pilot, I have one degree in physics and
two in electrical engineering, so I'm something of a geek on the technology side. I've
spent the last 14 years as an " angel investor " in early-stage companies, so I have a
bit of experience trying to spot technology
trends. And I've been driving electric for
almost eight years, so I've experienced the
liquid-fuel-to-electrons transition directly,
learning a few things in the process.
As the saying goes, though: It's hard
to make predictions, especially about the

future. So below I'm going to make observations based on the trends I see, with some
extrapolation, rather than making outright
predictions.
WHY ELECTRIC AVIATION?

Why is electric aviation even interesting to
consider, when existing fossil/liquid fuelbased aviation works pretty darned well?
There are many reasons.
The first is reliability. Electric motors
have few moving parts, and very few failure modes. They deliver torque across a
wide rpm range. You can't over- or underlean; the engine doesn't need air to operate
so it can deliver full power at any altitude.
There is no fuel contamination, no detonation or preignition, and the TBO is
generally...well, forever.
A related advantage of electric aviation
is maintainability. With so few moving parts,
there just isn't a lot to inspect or maintain:
no belts to break, hoses to burst, no oil to

check/change/drain, no starter motor, no
fuel filters or air filters. And the " fuel " has
no weight at all-you can always apply all
of your useful load to payload, take off with
" full-tanks " even with full load, and you
have no fuel-related center-of-gravity issues
to manage in-flight.
Electric motors also are significantly
more efficient. Your car's internal combustion engine turns only about 20 to 35
percent of the gasoline's chemical engineering into forward motion. A jet engine
has higher thermodynamic efficiency, turning about 55 percent of the fuel's energy into
useful work. Electric motors, on the other
hand, are commonly north of 85 to 90 percent efficiency.
Electric motors are lightweight and
can allow for more aerodynamic designs.
For example, for a single-engine propeller airplane you can have a narrow cowling
because you don't need airflow through the
engine; this also allows more of the propeller's lift to become thrust.
Electric motors have low operating
costs. This obviously varies depending on a
lot of factors, but a joule of energy delivered
electrically is often significantly cheaper
than a joule of energy in liquid form. When
coupled with low maintenance costs, the
impact on cost-per-mile can be significant.
Electric aircraft are quieter. Sure, a propeller makes noise, but take the engine out
of the equation and the noise level can drop
considerably. Switch from one or two highrpm propellers to more low-rpm propellers,
and the noise level drops more.
But perhaps the biggest advantage of
electric aviation is the subtlest: The engine
is abstracted from its power source. In other
words, it doesn't know or care from where
its energy is derived. A huge part of the
engineering of traditional aviation engines
is about getting a very specific liquid fuel
to the right place at the right time with the
right fuel/air mixture and only then converting it to energy from which to produce
thrust. Think of carburetors and fuel injectors, air filters and ducts, mixture controls,
spark plugs, valves, exhaust systems, all of
which makes the traditional aviation engine
intimate with its energy source.
That abstraction carries at least five
under-appreciated but significant benefits:
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AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021

Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Intro
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Cover1
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Cover2
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - Contents
AOPA Pilot Magazine - May 2021 - 2
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