In our interview, Pipistrel CEO Ivo Boscarol talks about the next generation of electric aircraft and where he thinks the aviation industry is headed.
Pipistrel is a Slovenian aircraft manufacturer and one of the pioneers of electric aviation. We asked the company’s CEO about where the technology is going and what this means for the future of aviation in general. Boscarol has some fascinating predictions to share!
Mr. Boscarol, you are already successfully selling fully electric aircraft. What is your main market for these at the moment?
It is hard to say because we are already getting orders from all over the world and our aircraft are already flying on all continents. For the near future, I estimate that three markets will be booming:
First: Europe, because of the planned EASA type-certified model, which opens the market for training activities mainly in urban areas, where the training is not allowed anymore with fuel-powered aircraft because of the noise issue. In Europe, there is also a surprisingly large and rising trend of future pilots who think differently, who want to behave in a responsible way towards the environment and make a demand to the flight schools where they decide to pass their pilot license: they are going to train on electric aircraft, or not at all.
Second: the USA, where the change of the law that LSA can also become electric will open an enormous market for training – for the exact same reason.
And third: when our facility in China will be finished, we will produce the Alpha Electro for the markets in China and 11 neighboring countries. China has radically changed the legislation about pollution in the country, and aviation is one of the first targets they want to improve.
The next peak expansion of electric aviation will be urban mobility.
And what do you think will be the next step for electric aviation – to which market can it expand in the near future?
The next peak expansion of electric aviation will be urban mobility – the “UBER concept” and other concepts of flying taxis. This will allow a really big implementation of commercial electric aviation into everyday life.
Some critics say that the energy density of batteries simply isn’t high enough for electric motors to replace combustion engines for regular passenger and cargo flights. Some even argue that it will never be possible. What is your answer?
As in similar cases, there is no black-and-white answer. Electric propulsion is already fully replacing the propulsion in some aircraft types such as motor-gliders. It can fully replace fuel-powered engines in the initial flight training, and also provide propulsion for air city transport, because the diameter of the cities is below 50 miles. Today’s existing battery energy density can easily cover this distance.
However, at the moment we can only dream that without a combination engine or different hybrid solution such as fuel cells, additional combustion engine, etc., it would be possible to cross the Atlantic, carry more than 20 passengers or remain in the air for many hours. The existing chemistry of battery cells doesn’t allow this yet.
If you want to run, you must start walking first and to start walking, you must take the first step, however wobbly it is.
But this is the nature of development. Remember how in the beginning, the first cell phones were only moderately useful – the battery lasted only about two or three hours before you had to recharge it and the signal was only available in large cities. People claimed it would never be useful. But compare this to what we have now. If you want to run, you must start walking first and to start walking, you must take the first step, however wobbly it is. And in electric aviation, this first step was taken by us.
With the Hypstair project, Pipistrel has experimented with serial hybrid propulsion systems. What have you learned about hybrid technology?
We learned that hybrid electric propulsion in 4-seat aircraft is possible with the same maximum take-off weight and that the range can be extended to more than 1000km. With the MAHEPA project, we are now making this a reality. The prototype is scheduled to fly in February and the serial production of the certified model is going to start before 2025.
There are different hybrid systems out there – the serial hybrid systems using electrical motors powered by various power sources such as batteries, fuel-powered engines, fuel cells, power-to-liquid and so on, but also hybrid systems that use separate propulsion systems in parallel to power the propeller, such as gas turbines and electric motors. Which system do you think is most promising? And where do you see the future for hybrid?
We believe in the serial hybrid concept, where the engine is connected to the propeller shaft: the propulsion is always coming from the electric motor, and we have two sources of energy – batteries and a generator.
If you have the ability to preserve the atmosphere for our descendants as it is today, this is your duty to do.
When thinking about electrification, what message or advice would you give to the aviation industry?
“Don’t give up – skeptics will always exist. Be aware of your mission and if you have the ability to preserve the atmosphere for our descendants as it is today, this is your duty to do. People can survive weeks without food, days without water, but only a few minutes without air.”
And where do you see the future of aviation in general? How will the aviation industry look like in 30 years?
If you have children, I highly recommend that you go with them to the airport and take some pictures next to aircraft for souvenirs to remember the shape of the wings. You see, aircraft are just one step before major changes. While the aircraft still keep their wings, they will have lots of small engines because of the advantages of distributed propulsion. But the wings will soon become smaller and in the end be replaced completely because of the need for vertical take-off and landing.
People – travelers – will have ever-less time to lose around huge international airports, by the way, destroy the best farmland because of the vast terminals and long runways. The aviation industry will have to accept the fact that it serves the passenger, not force the passenger to be its servant, but get organized so that it brings the airport to the passenger instead and save him the time. This means that the aircraft will have to take off from ever-shorter runways or vertically, as close to the passenger’s homes as possible.
Because of the planned mass production of flying taxis, the existing aviation industry standards will not be efficient anymore. In some 30 years’ time, the aviation industry will need to need to cooperate with the automotive industry due to the need for several dozen times larger number of flying vehicles. And I’m sure that a new industry will be born that will combine the benefits of both branches, that is, the safety of the aviation standards and the efficiency of large-scale automotive production so that the new aircraft can be both safe and affordable.
Mr. Boscarol, thank you very much for the interview.