Our switch to electric planes

Published on: 1st November 2021

Electric trains, cars, bikes, scooters and now planes. In what feels like the blink of an eye, the era of electric flight is fast upon us and it has gone from seemly implausible science fiction to game-changing innovation set to transform the world around us.

Electric flight doesn't just involve swapping propulsion technology from combustion engines for electric motors and continuing with our existing airborne mobility paradigm. It is going to enable a completely new way of travelling – and living.

It has always seemed rather far-fetched to think that we would be flying around in cars.  However, with multiple organisations progressing the development of eVTOL (electric vertical take off and landing) air taxis and shuttles, this is increasingly looking like an achievable future reality.

When it comes to solving the problems of capacity and congestion that dog our current ground based transport infrastructures, small scale electric flying vehicles may be the technological game changer that autonomous cars have so far failed to be. The challenge of providing internet access in remote areas was solved by stepping away from the existing technology and adopting satellite enabled communication rather than attempting to install more cables. In the same way, perhaps the sky offers a better option for short to medium length journeys rather than continually expanding and extending our existing road and rail networks.

High straight line speed isn't essential, as has been demonstrated by the lack of a Concord replacement. Total journey time is usually dominated by embarkation, disembarkation and change overs, as well as external factors like congestion that cause delays. If the infrastructure can be provided to support direct transfer from A to B, safely and cost effectively, travelling via small scale electric shuttle aircraft is going to be a compelling proposition.

With the world’s first airport for electric aircraft including air taxis and autonomous delivery drones due to open in Coventry, England later this year, the first steps to establishing this infrastructure are well underway.  Increasingly, cities are including electric planes in their transport strategies and new building plans incorporate roof loading capacities to support such urban airports.  It is tempting to imagine the roofs of all major travel hubs like railway stations and international airports being converted so that fleets of air taxis replace the rows of cabs that currently congregate here.

Of course the cost of establishing this infrastructure will be substantial.  However, we need to compare this to the cost of maintaining and expanding our ground based transport networks, including the cost of establishing a new infrastructure to support the switch to electric and hydrogen propulsion systems.  And then there are the broader social and environmental issues that will inevitably accompany any large scale infrastructure project like HS2.

Furthermore, particle pollution created by tyre degradation is going to be the next big issue for road transportation if vehicle numbers continue to grow.  Sadly, the move to electric cars will do nothing to address this.

Electric flight ultimately drives us towards autonomous flight.  With battery power so valuable, why expend the energy required to take a pilot with you if you can leave them on the ground?  Also if this market takes off (excuse the pun) as expected there is going to be a shortage of suitably trained pilots / drivers, at least in the short term.

It could be debated that autonomous flight is more achievable than overcoming the challenges involved in delivering (Level 5) fully autonomous self-driving cars. The skies are vast, with an additional vertical dimension, less cluttered and more predictable than our urban streetscapes.

The technical and design challenges that need to be overcome to deliver electric planes in the numbers envisaged here are immense.  However, cars are themselves extremely complex products and yet we have the technology to turn them out reliably and consistently in vast numbers, even as manufacturers are migrating from their mature combustion engine platforms to new electric and hybrid models. It isn't hard to extrapolate that this same manufacturing knowledge could be used to create electric planes in large numbers.

Covid-19 has shown us that business didn't just stop because travel was curtailed. Companies have had to find a way to do business remotely and in future justifying travel in terms of journey time, cost and environmental impact will become more difficult. Will that meeting really be substantially better if I attend in person? Some physical meetings will still be needed and electric shuttle planes using autonomous control, highly reliable electric motors, and energy harvested from low cost sustainable sources, could allow these to take place at an acceptable environmental and economic cost.

The growth in homeworking has encouraged people to consider living and working in remoter areas.  However, there will still be the need for face to face interactions, and people will still need to travel from these remote locations into city offices. Access to electric personal flight would support this new lifestyle choice far better than the existing patchy rural transport options.

As we all know, the perceived freedom of an individual car journey is hard to improve on, at least in theory, despite the congestion and environment impact it can cause. The case for small scale shared electric flight may well challenge that and, in so doing, create a more sustainable and enduring transport solution.

Ultimately, we are going to need a range of transport solutions to meet our different travel needs. The development of electric flight has the potential to deliver sustainable travel for individuals and small groups in the form of privately owned, hired and public shuttles/taxis in the future.  At DCA we are excited to see how our transportation infrastructure develops to accommodate this new mode of travel and how our business and leisure activities evolve in response.