In Australia, the electrification specialists Magnix have modified the first all-electric, zero-emission drive aircraft approved for national use.
The Cessna 208 Caravan is a nine-seater aircraft, usually used for pilot training, commuter flights, and freight. So it’s hardly a jumbo jet, but Magnix’s modified version of the Caravan already set records as the largest electric plane ever to complete its maiden flight without a hitch last May in the US. The Australian modification needs to complete certification by the country’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which is likely to take them until 2023. When completed, though, it would mean partner Sydney Seaplanes could use an electric Cessna in place of an ordinary one at any given time.
So far, so inconsequential-sounding, if small domestic flights in Oz don’t play a major role in your life, which I suspect is the case for most of us. The significant bit, basically, is that at the moment, electric planes are generally only privately available. Slovenian maker Pipistrel is on the forefront of developments, with their Velis Electro two-seater becoming the first electric plane to receive European approval earlier this year, and the Alpha Electro similarly approved for purchase in the US (provided you already have a pilot’s license and $140,000 going spare).
If the Cessna passes its two-year test, it would set a precedent for completely electric planes approved for use on a regular commercial basis – one we’d hope other nations would follow. 2020 has seen an increase in electromobility interest from airlines, probably anticipating further carbon restrictions in the near future. JetBlue has invested $250 million into electric aviation over the last three years, and EasyJet has plans for a fleet of electric planes covering shorter routes by 2030. Even the US military has its boot in the door, providing funding and testing for electric cargo drones.
Much like cars, it’s expected that electric planes will eventually work out cheaper, thanks to fewer moving parts, less maintenance, and of course electricity working out much cheaper than jet fuel. But building all-new planes and getting them approved is an unsurprisingly lengthy and expensive process.
There have already been a few bumps in the road. Eviation’s all-electric Alice prototype caught fire during ground tests in January, likely due to overheating batteries – which we guess is better than bursting into flames in the sky, but still a bit alarming.
And, of course, even successful models like the Cessna are only suitable for short flights in small aircrafts, which don’t make up the majority of the aviation industry’s net 2% contribution to global CO2 emissions. As such, it’s probably hybrids that will make the real difference to airline travel – but we’ve got a long way to go before any of this is the norm.