Increased pressure on aviation industry to transform to electric propulsion

23 November 2017 5 min. read
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The race to develop a fully electric aircraft has begun. According to a new report, the biggest names of the aerospace industry are bidding to develop their own electrified flight technology, with combustion engines becoming increasingly costly in the world of the Paris Climate Accord.

Aviation, which is set to see strong growth in demand in the coming decades, will need to find ways to offset the considerable carbon equivalent footprint, following the signing of the Paris Agreement. Electrification of the industry is on the horizon, with battery technology improving, while aircrafts are increasingly leveraging electric components. In coming years, the industry may see rapid development towards systems and propulsion, as various economic inflection points are reached from parallel development in the automotive industry.

A new study from Roland Berger, titled 'Aircraft Electrical Propulsion – The Next Chapter of Aviation?: It's a question not of if, but when', considers the impact that electrification may have on the aviation industry. The study has found that electrification carries considerable benefits for current OEMs and suppliers if the industry transforms to meet various global and industry-specific targets.Electrification of systemsElectrification has, for some time, been changing how commercial and military aircraft operate. Jet engines have provided additional energy to power various flight systems for the longest time, from hydraulics to pneumatic systems – with around 5% of jet engine output being leveraged to power flight systems. In recent years, a shift has taken place as new types of aircraft increasingly use electric flight systems to manage various aircraft systems – much of which is derived from transformation of thrust into increasingly sophisticated electrical outputs.

While electrification of various flight systems is one form of electrification, the bigger picture – with jet fuel providing around 40 MW of thrust for the approximate 1.7 MW used by flight systems – is the electrification of propulsion. A number of options are being considered, including hybrid-electric systems, tubro-electric systems and all electric systems. The three options are relatively similar to the automotive industry, with aviation R&D following similar trends in development.Electrical propulsion architecture

To develop new offerings, leveraging various propultion mixes, a number of electrically propelled aircraft development programmes have been started, with new programme growth noted as being steady since 2006. Today there are around 70 operational programmes, some public and some more secretive. Around 20% have been launched by major aerospace companies such as Boeing and Airbus, while others are smaller startups – around 5% of which are funded from outside the aviation industry.

The major players are focused on creating electric Large Commercial Aircraft, although some independents, such as Wright Electric, are also active in the space. The focus here is the development of a 150-seat electrically-propelled aircraft, which can offer short-haul in key domestic and regional air spaces to compete with A320 and 737 families.


While the technology promises to massively reduce the carbon-equivalent footprint of the industry, the research notes a number of areas in which technology, and necessary conditions for fully electric flight, remain out of sync. The most basic issue, is range. As it stands, the most cost-effective battery model has a energy density to weight ratio of around 260 Wh/kg, without considering the effect of cooling and other systems. For comparison, a 180 Wh/kg battery would allow around 200 km of flight for a Dornier 328, a turbo-prop aircraft with a capacity of around 30 passengers. This variety of fuel offers around 1,200 km in range. Other barriers remain, including the engine design, the transportation of electricity in the aircraft, concern around battery safety, as well as the wider regulatory framework.

Electrically propelled aircraft programmes

A 500+ battery is likely, according to this report, to come into service in around 2030, with that capacity likely to spark a revolution in the industry. Thus, while there continue to be technical barriers to the deployment of fully electric aircraft, it is more likely to be a matter of when, rather than if - with the potential for breakthroughs in battery science, or electrication, quickly shifting timelines. Winds of change are likely to push the industry towards meeting necessary requirements for sustainable economic activity. OEMs and suppliers that do not change risk being blitzed by competition, as various pressures push for the rapid scaling over current barriers.

The authors of the paper concluded, “Consumers can look forward to cleaner, greener, cheaper and potentially safer flight in the future. Current aerospace companies must now work to identify the crest and figure out how to ride the wave of change; new entrants must decide when and how to enter; investors must decide which ventures to back; and governments should consider how best to facilitate economic and industrial growth. The next few decades of aerospace are set to be eventful indeed.”