In September 2021, British engineering leader, Rolls-Royce, recorded the first flight of its all-electric aircraft, “Spirit of Innovation.”
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The plane took off from Boscombe Down, a UK defense site managed by QinetiQ, and landed approximately 15 minutes later. The historic flight signaled an intense testing phase to collect data on the aircraft electrification technology, which Rolls-Royce hopes will see wider adoption in sustainable aircraft design of the future. In November 2021, Spirit of Innovation broke two speed records, becoming the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft, with an average of 555.9 km/h (345.4 mph) over 3 km, and 532.1 km/h (330 mph) over 15 km.
“Spirit of Innovation”: Maiden Flight is Early Success for Flight Electrification
Rolls-Royce says the electric powertrain driving the aircraft is the most power-dense battery pack ever put together for an aircraft. It was developed as part of the ACCEL (accelerating the electrification of flight) program led by Rolls-Royce.
The electric powertrain technology was developed in Filton, southwest England, in Rolls-Royce’s base. The aircraft was moved to the Boscombe Down base in nearby Wiltshire for the testing phase.
Rolls-Royce partnered with Electroflight on the project and spent £6 million. The rest of ACCEL’s funding came from the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), which uses UK government funding from the Innovate UK allocation for advanced research and development.
The ATI is particularly interested in funding projects that will lead to new UK capabilities and put the country ahead in the challenging race to decarbonize aviation.
“Spirit of Innovation” gets its energy from a 400-kW battery built by Electroflight, based in Gloucestershire, UK. Three electric motors built by Oxford, UK-based manufacturer Yasa, convert this energy into 500 horsepower each.
Rolls-Royce plans to use technology developed in the ACCEL project to inform development in other areas of sustainable aviation. A complete electric propulsion system for eVTOL or small commuter aircraft should come from the project, which Rolls-Royce intends to offer to customers.
The company says that air taxis and eVTOLs have similar battery requirements to the “Spirit of Innovation” plane. The innovative battery storage density in the “Spirit of Innovation” enables it to reach record-breaking speeds, while commuter aircraft will use these batteries to reliably carry human payloads around a city.
Rolls-Royce | 'Spirit of Innovation’ is officially the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft
Video Credit: Rolls-Royce/YouTube.com
Next Steps for ACCEL
Rolls-Royce will be deploying technology developed in the ACCEL project to the consumer market in around five years’ time, according to the company’s plans.
It has partnered with Tecnam, an Italian aeronautics manufacturer, and the largest regional airline in Scandinavia, Widerøe. The partnership will see an all-electric passenger aircraft deployed to service the commuter market by 2026.
Urban mobility is another exciting application area for ACCEL technology. Rolls-Royce has mentioned Vertical Aerospace, a Bristol, UK-based sustainable aerospace manufacturer in relation to ACCEL commercialization plans.
Are Electrified Aircraft the Future of Sustainable Flight?
These kinds of projects are not intended for intercontinental travel. Instead, small 20-seat passenger carriers are expected to meet the demand for regional commuter flights between cities. Smaller air taxis will service urban transport requirements.
These new technologies could unlock the rapid decarbonization of the travel sector. Electrifying these small aircraft means that they can be powered entirely from renewable energy sources, removing a significant contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.
The fuel requirements for large, intercontinental aircraft cannot be met by battery storage or electric power using current technology. However, Rolls-Royce expects the technology it is developing through the ACCEL program to compliment planes’ energy requirements and decrease the amount of fuel they consume.
Aircraft currently use mini generators to provide electricity for in-flight entertainment and other passenger amenities. The battery storage systems developed at ACCEL for aviation use can be used to make large aircraft more efficient, using less fossil fuel overall, according to Rolls-Royce.
When Will We See Electrified Aircraft in Our Cities?
Electrified aircraft that complete regional flights between cities may become a reality in just a few years, says Rolls-Royce and its partners on the ACCEL project. Rolls-Royce’s roadmap to bring the technology to market by 2025 will see it featuring in the first generation of small, electrified passenger flights.
Sweden-based Heart Aerospace says its 19-seat all-electric aircraft will begin commercial flights by the middle of 2026. The ES-19 uses a conventional aluminum airframe and wing, and has a planned range of 222 miles, or 400 km. It will be able to operate from runways as little as half a mile (800 m) long.
Aura Aero, based in France, announced this year that its Electric Regional Aircraft (ERA) will also be certified for commercial use in 2026.
There are around 200 known electrified aircraft projects in development at the moment, all racing to bring the next generation of sustainable air travel to the market.
References and Further Reading
Baker, H. (2021). Rolls-Royce in bid to transform air travel with all-electric plane. [Online] Business Live. Available at: https://www.business-live.co.uk/manufacturing/rolls-royce-bid-transform-air-21686884
Bremner, C. (2021). French electric airliner will take to the skies in five years. [Online] The Times. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/aura-aero-electric-planes-np2362l2f
Otley, T. (2021). Rolls-Royce’s all-electric aircraft completes first flight. [Online] Business Traveller. Available at: https://www.businesstraveller.com/business-travel/2021/09/18/rolls-royces-all-electric-aircraft-completes-first-flight/
Sarsfield, K. (2019). Electric aircraft projects to top 200 by year-end: Roland Berger. [Online] Flight Global. Available at: https://www.flightglobal.com/business-aviation/electric-aircraft-projects-to-top-200-by-year-end-roland-berger/132666.article
Wolfsteller, P. (2020). Sweden’s Heart Aerospace presents all-electric regional aircraft. [Online] Flight Global. Available at: https://www.flightglobal.com/airframers/swedens-heart-aerospace-presents-all-electric-regional-aircraft/140307.article.
Watson, G. (2022) Rolls-Royce all-electric aircraft breaks world records. [Online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-60068786