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  • TRANSPORTATION

A BONKERS PRIVATE "JET" BRINGS ELECTRIC FLIGHT TO THE RICH

EVIATION AIRCRAFT LTD.

IF YOU’RE JUST coming around to the idea of battery powered cars, prepare for the next onslaught, because the future of flight is electric too. And just as with ground vehicles, nothing pushes along new tech like some sex appeal. Tesla did that for cars, with sleek looks and ludicrous acceleration. Now, Eviation Aircraft wants to do the same for the sky.

At last week's Paris Air Show, the Israeli company unveiled a prototype electric light aircraft, a private jet without the jet engines.

Eviation says that because it designed the Alice Commuter plane to be all-electric from the outset (instead of converting an existing model), it could reimagine key components, like the design of the spindly looking composite airframe, and placement of the motors, without the usual constraints of heavy engines and fuel tanks.

And so the Alice Commuter looks like the future should: sleek, white, and pointy. Round portholes dot the length of the cabin, which can carry up to nine people and two crew. The plane, 40 feet long with a 44-foot wingspan, is roughly the same size as the Beechcraft King Air, one of the most popular turboprop light aircraft. The plane's distinctive twin-tailed design is reminiscent of a Global Hawk military drone.

A tail-mounted propeller does the bulk of the work, with help from the propellers at the tip of each wing, each driven by an electric motor in a pod. To keep everything spinning, Eviation's engineers plan to install a 980-kWh, lithium-ion battery pack, about the equivalent of the storage in 10 top-of-the-range Teslas. That's enough, Eviation says, to fly 600 miles at more than 250 mph. There’s no plan to pressurize the cabin, but that’s typical of a plane in this class.

 

The open question will be how the engineers account for the weight of that pack, likely somewhere north of 10,000 pounds, or two-thirds the max takeoff weight of the King Air. Eviation hasn’t provided details on how it might do that, or where exactly it will stick the battery.

For all its future-y looks, the Alice Commuter looks tame, even retro, next to some of the jet fuel-free designs other manufacturers are already demonstrating. Citing the same benefits of distributed electric propulsion (since each rotor lifts more than it weighs, you can use a ton of them) lots of startups and even big players like Airbus are convinced that electric aviation is the future.

Electric planes, with no need for oil changes, engine rebuilds, or expensive jet fuel, could cut operating costs and make the dream of private air travel a little more affordable. Someday.

“It’s some years away in terms of application, it’s going to take quite a bit of money to develop, it’s going to take cooperation of industry, the academic world, and government,” says Mike Benzakein, who manages aerospace and aviation at Ohio State University. But he’s convinced it’s an achievable future, at least for smaller aircraft. An electric passenger plane the size of a 737 is at least 20 years out. Eviation, however, expects to certify its design next year and start offering commercial flights in 2021. If they can make it happen, the jet set will be saying, props.

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