An electric-powered flight of a commercial-scale aircraft has been carried out in the UK for the first time by ZeroAvia.
The Californian company completed the first flight of the new version of its powertrain from its base at Cranfield Airport. Longer test flights are planned for later this summer, culminating in a UK-based 250-300 nautical mile flight from the Orkney Islands.
ZeroAvia is also developing a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain that they said offers the same zero-emission potential of battery-electric, but has a more promising energy-to-weight ratio, making it viable for commercial operations at a much larger scale and in a shorter time frame. Hydrogen-electric powertrains are projected also to have lower operating costs.
To this end, ZeroAvia is leading HyFlyer, a project looking to decarbonise medium range small passenger aircraft by replacing conventional piston engines in propeller aircraft with technologies including electric motors and hydrogen fuel cells. The project is funded through Innovate UK and the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI)-led Aerospace R&T programme.
Beyond HyFlyer, ZeroAvia plans commercially viable and certified 10-20 seat configurations within three years, and 50-100 seat configurations in flight by the end of the decade. The company projects that aircraft over 200 seats with a range in excess of 3,000 nautical miles is achievable by 2040 without requiring any fundamental scientific breakthroughs.
In spite of the challenges presented by the lockdown, and thanks to the support by the Airport’s Operations team, Cranfield University, and Cranfield Aerospace, the HyFlyer project has progressed with minimal delays. A hydrogen refuelling infrastructure has recently been commissioned, and ZeroAvia has completed a full set of ground-based full-power flight simulations for its long-distance hydrogen flights.
In a statement, Val Miftakhov, ZeroAvia Founder and CEO said: “Today’s flight is the latest in a series of milestones that moves the possibility of zero emission flight closer to reality. We all want the aviation industry to come back after the pandemic on a firm footing to be able to move to a net zero future, with a green recovery. That will not be possible without realistic, commercial options for zero emission flight, something we will bring to market as early as 2023.”
As part of the project, ZeroAvia is partnering with the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), which is supporting the development of the infrastructure needed to fuel the aircraft at Cranfield and on Orkney. Intelligent Energy is optimising its proprietary high-power evaporatively cooled fuel cell technology for aviation use cases.