Zunum launches hybrid-electric aircraft for regional market

Seeking to serve a neglected market for inexpensive, short-range air transport, Zunum Aero formally launched development of a six-to-12-seat hybrid-electric vehicle on 5 October and promised to deliver the aircraft within five years, says company founder Ashish Kumar.

The low-wing, V-tailed vehicle is aimed at providing air transportation on routes up to 700nm (1,300km) for seat-mile economics equivalent to a 78-seat Bombardier Q400 turboprop, Kumar tells FlightGlobal in an interview.

Asked if that proposition should spread fear in either the makers of regional turboprops or small business jets, Kumar replied that Zunum’s aircraft would most threaten automobiles. Cars, not airplanes, account for the vast majority of all travel under 300nm, he says.

“The people that should be afraid are the guys that make cars,” he says.

But the regional aircraft market is also ripe for disruption, he adds.

“From our standpoint, it has a lot do with cost,” he says. “The regional market is largely flight 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s technology.”

With the financial backing by Boeing HorizonX, JetBlue Technology Ventures and Washington state’s Green Energy Fund, Zunum proposes to modernise the regional aircraft by inserting a hybrid-electric propulsion system to lower operating costs by 40-80%. The aircraft is designed to carry batteries in wing compartments for normal power, then use a 1,350hp (1MW)-class gas turbine engine to generate electric power to extend the aircraft’s range.

Despite a design that requires a gas turbine engine, two 500kW generators and batteries, Zunum believes the acquisition cost of the aircraft can be kept below the list price of a $4.5 million single-engined turboprop, such as a Pilatus PC-12 or Cessna Denali, he says.

In addition to saving on fuel, the operating costs for the Zunum should be kept low by using Part 23 airworthiness certification requirements, he says. If operated with a premium-class, nine-seat cabin, the Zunum aircraft can be operated by only a single pilot, versus a crew of two pilots and a flight attendant for the Q400, Kumar says. Zunum also is designing the fly-by-wire aircraft to be able to fly without a pilot on board, he adds.

Zunum has started surveying four potential vendors – GE Aviation, Honeywell, Rolls-Royce and United Technology Aerospace Systems – to supply the 500kW-class electric generators. The powertrain rig will begin flight testing on a surrogate aircraft in 2019 from the company’s facilities near Chicago, he says. First flight of the Zunum aircraft will follow a year later, followed by first delivery in 2022.

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