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Electric planes take off

New and promising projects to reduce emissions of small aircrafts.

by Amanda Saint
14 May 2020
5 min read
byAmanda Saint
14 May 2020
5 min read

Electric vehicles are fast becoming mainstream, and now electric airplanes are becoming more commonplace too. Worldwide there are more than 200 research and development projects in progress to electrify the aviation industry. So how long until we see electric airplanes taking to the skies?

Some small electric planes have already taken test flights, and there are several different versions of electric aircraft in development. But the first commercial passenger planes powered purely by electricity are not expected to take off until 2030.

Many of the current projects are urban air taxis, which are designed to carry a few passengers on short trips up to about 15 miles. Big tech giants, automotive companies and start-ups are all working on small craft that are expected to be delivering flying taxi trips in cities within the next few years.

Piloted air taxi taking off

Recently, Silicon Valley's Joby Aviation, which has developed a zero emission electric aircraft that can carry four passengers, announced that Toyota Motor Corporation is investing $501 million to partner with the company on its electric aircraft project. Joby has designed a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) craft, which means it doesn't need a runway as it works like a helicopter. The company has been working on the design since 2009 and have run hundreds of test flights of early prototypes to test the technology.

In addition, Joby Aviation has also figured out the optimum design and are working to get Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) certification in preparation for launching a green, piloted, flying taxi service.

At the end of 2019, the company also revealed it had entered into a partnership with Uber to launch a fast, reliable, clean and affordable urban air taxi service in 2023, aptly dubbed Uber Air.

Self- and remote-piloted crafts increase

The Airbus Vahana research and development project produced a fully electric VTOL aircraft that is self-piloted, and can automatically detect and avoid obstacles and other aircraft. Designed to carry a single passenger or cargo, it has already been through over 130 test flights.

The project came to an end in late 2019, but the company's City Airbus development is still in testing. This electric aircraft first took to the skies in May 2019 and will continue to make test flights throughout 2020. The next generation VTOL aircraft from Airbus Vahana, the City Airbus, has four seats and is remotely piloted.

Now the company is focusing on its Urban Air Mobility programme, which aspires to combine knowledge gained from Vahana and City Airbus to create a safe, comprehensive approach to urban air transport (UAT). This means taking a holistic view of what UAT has to deliver, building and bringing together all the critical components—technology, business models, city integration, infrastructure development and airspace management. The company recently announced it has also signed an agreement with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to enable urban air mobility in Singapore.


Vahana, the electric VTOL aircraft from Airbus

Piloted urban air jet takes flight

The Lilium Jet is the world's first fully electric VTOL jet. With an estimated range of up to 300 km and a top speed of 300 km/h— along with zero emissions—the inventors are saying it's the most efficient and eco-friendly individual means of transportation of our time.

With 36 all-electric engines, it can carry four passengers and a pilot and will be providing UAT services in cities around the world from 2025. It will offer an air taxi ordering app to its customers and has shown that journey times that used to take several hours by train or road can be cut to minutes. For example, the 129km journey from New York to Philadelphia can be traveled in just a half an hour.


The fully electric VTOL jet from Lilium

Greener travel abounds

So, what impact is this going to have on the emissions levels of the aviation sector? While difficult to quantify, it is obviously a big step in the right direction to replace urban taxi rides in cars powered by petrol or diesel, with zero emission aircraft instead.

Once the electric aircraft industry has developed enough to start running commercial passenger flights around the world, the impact will be huge. Despite the fact that modern aircraft are much more fuel efficient, the fact that the number of global flights is increasing means greenhouse gas emissions are as well.

By this year, global international aviation emissions were projected to be around 70% higher than in 2005. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) forecasts that by 2050 they're set to grow by a further 300-700%.

But with Scandinavia's largest regional airline, Widerøe, set to provide at least 30 electric passenger planes by 2030, if other airlines follow suit that figure could be cut significantly. Aiming for the sky, the aviation sector is certainly on a path to a greener, more sustainable future.