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Airlander 10 set for electric propulsion

An all-electric version of the world’s largest aircraft, Airlander 10, could be a step closer as a result of a UK project.

Airlander 10
A UK Aerospace Research and Technology Programme grant will help with the development of electric propulsion for Airlander 10 (Pic: HAV)

Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV), the developer of the Airlander 10 aircraft, in partnership with Collins Aerospace and Nottingham University, has been awarded a grant of £1.1m from the UK Aerospace Research and Technology Programme, to develop electric propulsion technologies.

The project, E-HAV1, will develop a prototype 500kW electric propulsion system, with the ultimate aim of replacing Airlander 10’s fuel-burning forward engines, in a first step towards an all-electric version of the aircraft.

Airlander 10 is a hybrid aircraft that relies on a combination of buoyant lift from helium like an airship, aerodynamic lift like an aeroplane and vectored thrust like a helicopter.

In this way it already consumes significantly less fuel than conventional aircraft, but the addition of electric forward propulsors will improve this even further, according to Nick Allman, executive director at HAV.

“The aircraft is already a low-carbon aerospace product, but we have our sights set more ambitiously in that we’re trying to be zero-carbon,” said Allman. “There are inherent features of our aircraft that we believe position us to be at the forefront of moving in that direction,” he said.

The amount of power needed by the aircraft is substantially lower than it would be on a traditional fixed wing aircraft, for example, meaning the electric propulsion systems needed are intrinsically smaller, he said.

“We also have quite a modular design, we have four engines that are independently attached to the vehicle, so its relatively straightforward for us to model in simulation a change from our current diesel cycle engines to electric,” said Allman.

As part of the three-year project, the team will carry out extensive ground-testing of the full-size prototype propulsion system, once it is built.

“We will be using test rigs that we have used to test the propulsion systems on the Airlander 10,” said Allman. “That will allow us to understand areas like its efficiency, noise levels, and how the new motor interacts with the propeller.”

A hybrid-electric and, ultimately, an all-electric version of Airlander 10 would represent a major achievement for the aerospace industry, said Marc Holme, motor drive systems engineering director at Collins Aerospace.

“Electric propulsion has the potential to revolutionise aircraft by providing significant reductions in carbon emissions, noise, fuel consumption, and operation and maintenance costs,” Holme said.

The UK Aerospace Research and Technology Programme is run by a partnership between the Aerospace Technology Institute, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Innovate UK.