Most machinery improves with ­electrification. Compared to internal combustion, electric motors are smaller, lighter, more powerful, smoother-running and easier to cool. They start instantly, waste no fuel idling, respond fluidly and deliver full torque at any speed.

And they are far more efficient. Where internal combustion converts most input energy to heat and noise, an electric motor puts out mostly thrust. A modern aircraft, however efficient, is a heater with wings.

Electric power improves emissions, safety and control. For good measure, electric systems have fewer parts, so are cheaper to build and maintain.

In aviation, another advantage of electrification is that it is much easier to distribute power via cables than drive shafts and geared transmissions, opening the way to novel aircraft configurations. Electric-powered quadcopter-style “air taxis” could be available in just a few years.

There are, however, two major obstacles to realising electric flight – and the limitations of battery performance, for once, are not among them.

First, fully exploiting electricity will require airframe and power system integration far beyond the standard bolt-on engines design. Can the industry make that organisational and competitive shift?

Second, if electric aircraft are merely added to the current regime – big, out-of-town airports, rigid timetables, bureaucratic air traffic control – their impact will be negligible. Real gains will only come if electrification makes air travel part of a fluid, integrated transportation system.

Whatever time, money and effort the aerospace industry is investing in R&D needs to be matched – and more – by attention to overhauling the financial, regulatory, customer service and even social standards that define aviation today.

Source: Flight International