The aviation industry has been a bedrock of innovation since the Wright brothers first took flight in 1903, manning what would become the first fully-functional airplane. Since then, the promise of manned flight travel has proven to be more than just, well, hot air. The planes have gotten bigger, the flights more frequent—we’ve even managed to build on this technology and take off to once uncharted terrain.
As has occurred previously with railways and cars, aviation has become the latest industry to begin dipping its toe into electric alternatives, with longstanding ambitions to develop electric planes that need less fuel, or abandon fuel altogether. And considering that aviation accounts for 11% of all transportation-related emissions in the United States—a round trip flight between California and New York alone generates the same amount of greenhouse gases as a car does over an entire year—the examination might be coming just in time.
The carbon footprint has served as an impetus, but limitations on battery technology have been a consistent hurdle. This past week, however, Airbus, Siemens, and Rolls Royce announced the beginning stages of a hybrid-electric plane project entitled E-Fan x. The three companies each represent a different area of the aviation industry—aircraft design, power supply, and engine manufacturing respectively—and together they aim to have a prototype ready to launch by 2020, with the intention of bringing the plane to the commercial market by 2030.
The project comes after Siemens and Airbus partnered in 2016 on CityAirbus, a flying taxi prototype which is slated to run on a collaboratively designed motor. The E-Fan X was born largely out of the experience and experimentation forged in the labs during the CityAirbus project, though the proposed electric plane is set to move forward as part of an entirely separate partnership.
British manufacturer Rolls Royce will be designing a gas turbine and generator to produce power that the Siemens electric propulsion system will run on. From there, Airbus will design an internal system that can integrate both systems together for the aircraft to run smoothly. From what is understood of its early stages, the E-Fan X may result in being more of a hybrid model, fusing electric and fuel perhaps in an effort to up the number of passengers the craft can hold, a bold step forward in commercial travel.
The momentum of the project comes hot on the heels of Tesla’s full immersion into the mainstream, with major retailers such as Walmart backing the company’s bid to redefine the automobile industry and re-energize electrical innovation. Over the last few years, aviation startups have gradually begun to lean into a eco-friendlier mindset, pushing forth new designs for electric or hybrid aircrafts.
Yet companies seem largely stumped when it comes to passenger size. Seattle-based Zunum Aero, the collaboration project between Boeing and JetBlue, is focused on commuter aircrafts that cap between 10 to 50 people; Israeli startup Eviation caps at roughly nine; and a hoard of others, including NASA’s Maxwell and China’s RX1E-A, are all centered on strict two-seaters. The E-Fan X, while still in its early development stages, has plans to host up to 50 to 100 passengers, a gargantuan ambition within the context of the project’s other competitors.
Of course, innovations in air and space require more than just the participation and brain power of major corporations—they need the approval of authorities as well, especially in a time in which regulations for new technology, such as electric flight and self-manned vehicles, are still in their infancy. As of yet, there is no regulation for electric aircrafts, but that might have more to do with supply and demand. Before one can make the rules, it takes a brave few to help break them.