Tom Horne

Volts to the Rescue?

August 19, 2013 by Thomas A. Horne, Editor At Large

Let there be no doubt: Anti-noise and anti-carbon-footprint forces have teamed up with escalating fuel prices to make for challenging times. The future of general aviation may well depend on a new, cleaner, renewable source of power–electricity. Today, electrically-powered aircraft are in their infancy, but this is bound to change. As newer generations of lithium batteries continue to boast longer flight times, shorter charging times, and the ultimate in green technology–charging via electricity generated by solar cells–takes hold, it’s time to take electric aircraft seriously.

Tian Yu, Chairman of Shanghai-based Yuneec International, parlayed his fortune as a manufacturer of electrically-powered, remote-control toy airplanes, helicopters and cars into real airplanes such as the GreenWing International eSpyder and two-seat e430. Now, the eSpyder has been certified in Europe under Germany’s expansive ultralight rules as set out by the Deutscher Ultraleichtflugverband (DULV)–a branch of tthat nation’s Federal Ministry of Transport. U.S. Light Sport Aircraft certification is on track to follow, and more European and other nations are bound to reciprocate as well.

For a complete report on the state of the electric-aircraft movement, be sure to check out AOPA Pilot’s latest report on engine technology entitled “Electric Instead” in the September issue–and already released in digital form.

What are your thoughts on the subject? Are electrically-powered aircraft a passing fashion, or do they hold real promise for what could be a new technology that helps preserve general aviation’s future?


4 Responses to “Volts to the Rescue?”

  1. Carter Boswell Says:

    Hey Tom,

    I didn’t see you at the Electric Aicraft symposium last March in Santa Rosa CA, and now your an expert on Elec Airplanes?

    You can’t talk the talk unless you walk the walk. I expect the AOPA will send you to next years event.

    By the way, the goal of the society that puts on the event is to develop a flying autonomous electric powered vehicle that can replace your car.

    Quick question, how many fly-by-wire, piston power, single engine GA airplanes are their now flying in the USA today?

    I’m really surprised the AOPA has done any articles on Fly-By-Wire for GA

    Ans: One

    See ya


  2. Rick Vinas Says:

    I would love to see battery technology, solar technology, motor technology, and recharger technology make the quantum leap necessary to make electric cars, trucks, and especially airplanes successful. So far, it is all pie-in-the-sky talk, dependent on assumptions of future capability that is unlikely to manifest itself. I fear the physics makes the whole thing impractical at best and very dangerous at worst. If not for HUGE government involvements with laws and subsidies, none of the “alternative” energy schemes out there now would be any more successful than they were 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago, etc. The electronics industry may surprise us, but we will need a big leap in technologies for any of this to come to fruition.
    PS: Please don’t use the Tesla Motor Company as an example of success. It is a niche player that depends on government interference to make them even marginally attractive.

  3. David Smth Says:

    Mr Vinas: I agree that electric airplanes may not be practical for long distance transportation in the near future, but your dismissal of them for local recreational flying, and your dismissal of electric cars and trucks is seriously misguided. I’ve been driving a Nissan Leaf almost exclusively for two years now, and it is by far the best vehicle I’ve ever owned. It’s incredibly quiet, comfortable, and responsive. It seats four adults comfortably, and has enough cargo capability to carry a couple trash cans and 10′ lengths of conduit inside. My fuel cost is zero since the solar panels on our house generate more electricity than we consume. However, even if I were paying for electricity, the fuel cost is less than two cents a mile if you charge during off-peak hours (this is the general off-peak rate, it is not subsidized). Compare that to a Prius, with a fuel cost of 7 cents a mile, or a typical internal combustion vehicle that uses 12-20 cents a mile. This is not about government rebates and incentives, it’s about simple operating economics – electric cars and trucks win big for local transportation. The same is likely to be true for electric airplanes.

    Finally, if you regard all luxury cars (BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Lexus, Infinity, etc.) as a “niche” market, then I would agree that the Tesla Model S is a “niche” vehicle. But do you seriously believe that a $7500 tax rebate is a big factor in whether or not someone would choose to buy a Tesla over one of these other vehicles in the same price category?

  4. Black Diamond Says:

    Electric vehicles are a lot like solar power. The technology has quite a way to go before it will be a viable alternative to carbon-based power.

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