Electricity was discovered and harnessed over 200 years ago, but for most of its 100-plus years powered flight has relied on hydrocarbon energy and hydraulic force. That is changing, fast. Aircraft designers recognise the benefits of an all-electric systems architecture. No more pipes and pumps, filters and vales, regulators and reservoirs, and the ability to channel the energy wherever it is needed whenever it is needed.
The Boeing 787 and Lockheed Martin F-35 are the first big steps in that direction. But they still draw the energy to propel the vehicle and power its systems from hydrocarbon fuel. Now the first small steps towards electric propulsion are being taken. France is claiming the first flight of an electrically powered aircraft with the 23 December debut of the Electra, a single-seat ultralight powered by a 25hp electric motor and lithium polymer batteries.
The 49min flight round a 50km closed circuit was a "world premier", says APAME, the French association for electric-powered aircraft. The retro-looking Electra was conceived and built by ACV Aero Service and Electravia, with French aerospace laboratory Onera helping with the aircraft's "silent propeller".
At Oshkosh in June, Sonex Aircraft and motor developer AeroConversions unveiled the E-Flight Initiative to fly a Waiex kitplane on electric power, lithium polymer batteries providing up to 45min endurance at speeds up to 130mph.
Boeing’s Madrid research centre, meanwhile, is preparing a hybrid fuel-cell/battery-powered two-seater for flight tests. The modified Diamond Dimona motorglider will use the fuel cell to cruise at around 62mph, but will take-off and climb on lithium-ion battery power. Boeing says it will be the first demonstration that a manned aircraft can maintain level flight on fuel cells only.
They are small steps, but the age of electricity is coming to aviation.