Just a few hundred yards from Hawthorne Municipal Airport’s runway, a group of engineers wheel the body of a small aircraft out of a hangar. The plane is a modified Cessna Skymaster, which the team has named “The Electric Eel.” Instead of being loaded with fuel tanks, luggage compartments and seats, the fuselage is packed with control panels, power systems, and racks of batteries. Today, the team is testing new software for the motor. When they quickly spin the propeller up to different speeds, it is powered solely by batteries.
The aviation industry is currently producing about 3 percent of global carbon emissions, and as other industries electrify and reduce emissions, that percentage will only increase. There are a few possible solutions that are currently being considered, including bio-aviation fuels and hydrogen, as alternatives to gasoline and jet fuel as ways to reduce aviation emissions.
Ampaire, a small Los Angeles-based startup, is trying to disrupt the aviation industry by building quieter, cheaper and cleaner planes through electrification. While other companies are exploring building fully electric planes from scratch, Ampaire is taking what they see as a more practical approach, by adapting existing small propeller planes, like the Cessna, with hybrid-electric systems.
“Hybridization is not the end goal, but it allows us to enter the market quickly,” says Ampaire CTO Ed Lovelace. Ampaire recently completed a pilot project in Hawaii with Mokulele Airlines, conducting island-hopping flights and testing the flight systems, charging cycles, infrastructure, and battery backups. Ampaire also recently completed test flights in the U.K., where they broke the record for longest hybrid electric flight (418 miles). Through these projects, they measured 30 percent fuel reduction with their hybrid system, compared to a traditional engine.
Next, Ampaire hopes to work with airplane manufacturers to integrate their systems from the beginning of production, and then ultimately, once they have the knowledge and technology, produce clean sheet fully electric planes of their own design, all to maximize efficiency.
To get there, more research and experimentation is needed. According to Nate Wynn, the lead battery pack engineer at Ampaire, the industry still has a ways to go with battery recycling. While battery cells can now be reused in second-life applications, Wynn is looking into new solutions for reusing the minerals inside (primarily the cobalt and lithium) once the cells have fully expired.
Kevin Noertker, Ampaire CEO, is also hoping to improve the accessibility of regional aviation for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. Through electrification, Noertker thinks Ampaire can reduce the cost of operation and tickets. Although there are more than 5,000 airports around the United States, commercial airlines only fly to a small number of them. With electrified regional aviation, Noertker hopes to connect more communities, while reducing aircraft noise, and without negatively affecting the environment.