Electric aviation is still in its infancy. How far can it go – literally and figuratively? Let’s have a look at a pioneer of electric aircraft: the company Pipistrel from Slovenia.
Although still in its infancy, electric aviation has left the prototype stage for quite some time. One of its champions is Pipistrel. The Slovenian company started out in the 80ies and already showed a strong spirit under the restrictive government at the time. As the story goes, “the first aircraft was flown secretly in the evening, between dusk and dark”.
The same spirit shows in the company’s work on electric aircraft. With the Alpha Electro, a fully electric two-seater, Pipistrel targets the flight training market. Despite its current limitations, electric aviation is very useful even today for training pilots. Here, the advantages of flying electric manifest: lower operating costs and less noise. Even clumsy headsets become unnecessary.
But where do we go from there? Pipistrel CEO Ivo Boscarol describes his vision at an Avinor event:
The CEO raises a lot of good questions about the future of electric aviation. Let’s take a closer look.
Current Limitations of Electric Aircraft
The Pipistrel Alpha Electro can remain airborne for one hour, plus app. 20 minutes of reserve. There are currently technical limitations for electric aircraft in terms of range, even for light-weight two-seaters. Some of them achieve ranges of up to 3 hours. However, there are also regulatory constraints, such as definitions of the maximum take-off weight. All of this essentially limits electrical aviation to flight training, leisure flights and experimentation with short-haul flight capacity.
We have bigger challenges than train or car producers. We have many limitations.
As Ivo Boscarol remarks: “We have bigger challenges than train or car producers. We have many limitations.” Can these limitations be overcome? Following Boscarol’s lead, let’s explore some of the possible scenarios.
Next Step: Domestic Short-Haul Flights
While electric aircraft can be used for flight training even today, the next step would be short-haul flights. This is one of the reasons why Avinor has purchased the Pipistrel Alpha Electro machine. It’s about gaining experience, testing the technology – and demonstrate that electric aviation is possible.
Norway provides the ideal testing ground for short-haul electric flights. There are domestic flights as short as 30km in operation there – which makes electric aviation feasible in the near future.
In fact, Avinor is very ambitious and optimistic about electric flights. In our interview with Olav Mosvold Larsen, Senior Executive Adviser at Avinor, he said that the first regular electric flights would be a reality in Norway in five to ten years. Avinor’s vision is that all domestic flights will be electrified by 2040. This could involve hybrid technologies, as well.
If you don’t believe 2040 we will cross the ocean with a 100-seater, it’s only in your head. Obstacles are only in your head.
Ivo Boscarol shares this optimism: “If you don’t believe 2040 we will cross the ocean with a 100-seater, it’s only in your head. Obstacles are only in your head.” Let’s assume he is right – what would that mean for the future?
Less Noise, More Airports?
There’s more to electric aviation than the environmental benefits such as a significant reduction of CO2 emissions. The engines are drastically quieter than conventional combustion engines. This has implications.
As Ivo Boscarol points out, noise is a significant issue for residents and restricts the construction or extension of airports. Once electric aviation becomes a reality, regulators might change their approach when it comes to the noise issue. For example, it could become easier to build new small and city airports. Restrictions on take-offs and landings during the weekend or at night could be lifted.
More small and urban airports would mean less travel time for passengers. It would mean new routes and connections, potentially boosting cities and regions that were previously underserved or not served at all. This also ties into the EU’s Flightpath 2050 – Europe’s Vision for Aviation. It states as one of its goals that “90 % of travelers within Europe are able to complete their journey, door-to-door within 4 hours”. Local airports using emission-free, low-noise electric aircraft could be part of the mix to reach that goal.
Further Science Fiction?
But Pipistrel CEO Boscarol goes even further when he says that vertical take-offs are the future of aviation. He envisions an Uber model where planes can fetch you from your window and bring you right to your office: “In big cities, you spend hours to go to your working place even though you can see your home 15km away”, as Boscarol explains. Therefore, he sees a future where planes have engines all over the place – and eventually, the wings will disappear entirely.
However the future of electric aviation will turn out, electric aircraft are here. Let’s follow the developments carefully.