Electric-Powered Aircraft Could Enter Regional Service In Five Years
Wideroe’s route network exemplifies the opportunity for all-electric commercial airline service: A flight from the Norwegian regional airline’s operational headquarters in Bodo to Leknes in the Lofoten Islands is shorter than 100 km (62 mi.). Another flight from Vardo to Tromso in northern Norway stops in Batsfjord, Berlevag and Hammerfest on the way—with some legs just about 30 mi.
“Seventy-five percent of the routes we fly in this network are shorter than 300 km, and more than 50% [are] shorter than 200 km,” says Wideroe Chief Strategy Officer Andreas Aks. “Many are even shorter. It is a huge network with many very short routes.”
- Electric aircraft projects for up to 19 seaters begin to take shape
- Wideroe, Finnair see good potential for remote short routes
- Tecnam Aircraft, Heart Aerospace target service entry by 2026
“There is a significant route structure in Norway where battery technology of today can unlock zero-emission flight,” notes Matheu Parr, Rolls-Royce Electrical customer business director.
Wideroe, Rolls-Royce and Italian aircraft manufacturer Tecnam have teamed up to make this idea a reality by 2026. Tecnam is modifying its nine-seat P2012 piston twin into what it calls the P-Volt, tapping Rolls-Royce for the electric power unit. Wideroe would give input from an operator perspective to help whatever the two manufacturers come up with make sense for the operational life of an airline. Wideroe has not signed a firm order for the aircraft yet.
The company is not the only airline pursuing this path now that air transport is slowly emerging from its deepest crisis and aiming to reinvent itself with a more environmentally sustainable role. Finnair has signed a letter of intent to buy 19-passenger electric aircraft from Swedish startup Heart Aerospace for use on its shortest routes. Heart also intends to begin deliveries of the battery-powered ES-19 in 2026. In Spain, Volotea and Air Nostrum are participating in a project to convert Cessna Caravans to electric power.
For the airlines, the move from one power source to another has broader implications, as it comes with moving from relatively large to small aircraft. “We see that the cost structure is expected to be very different,” says Aks. “The assumptions for our business model will change. We have been simulating structures; we see some very interesting ways of building our network. This may change the way we operate.”
While billions are being pumped into a myriad of air-taxi projects, regional commercial service has not attracted nearly as much attention from investors. Niche players or startups from inside the industry are driving early developments. From a technology point of view, electric power is not limited to small electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles. “We do see potential for all-electric flight for air taxis and 9-19-seat aircraft,” says Parr. “The larger regional space we see as a hybrid market.”
Wideroe needs alternatives to its existing operation—and fast. Its network covering the remote regions of Norway is economically sustainable only because of public service obligation (PSO) contracts with the government, which wants to keep communities connected. The network is mainly served by a fleet of 20 37-seat de Havilland Dash 8-100s, the youngest of which is 18 years old, according to the Aviation Week Network Fleet Discovery database. Its oldest is 30 years old, and many of the aircraft are nearing certified cycle limits.
Of course, age is not the airline’s only challenge. “The Dash 8 is way too big for many of the markets,” Aks says. “Often we fly with 5-10 passengers.” A much smaller aircraft would be better. And almost nowhere else in the world is the political pressure to curb emissions higher than in Norway. The government wants the first scheduled electric flight to take off by 2025 and all short-haul flights to be all electric by 2040. To buy itself a future, Wideroe has to show that it can operate in a much more sustainable manner.
For now, the airline’s best shot is replacing the Dash 8 with a smaller electric aircraft. And the P-Volt is a serious option if Tecnam can guarantee performance characteristics in line with the airline’s requirements. Those are to be determined over the coming months. “We don’t want to provide numbers until we have a high level of confidence that they will match our customers’ business plans,” says Fabio Russo, Tecnam’s head of research and development.
Another option is the ES-19. Before revealing the latest deal with Finnair, Heart Aerospace announced letters of interest for a total of 147 aircraft from customers including Air Greenland, Braathens, SAS, Wideroe, New Zealand’s Sounds Air, Quebec’s Pascan Aviation and UK startup CityClipper.
The ES-19 is being designed to fly up to 400 km, recharging between flights, on 200-Wh/kg battery energy density at the pack level. The aircraft has four underwing propulsion pods, each housing a 400-kW electric motor, and 30 battery modules, each containing 504 lithium-ion battery cells. The large-diameter motor drives a slow-turning seven-blade propeller for high efficiency and low noise.
Heart is developing the motor, power electronics and battery pack internally and working with Swedish battery manufacturer Northvolt on the cells. The startup has built a prototype of the motor and motor controller and developed a battery-in-the-loop simulator, which has been linked to flight simulation software so the battery system can be tested across all flight profiles.
In Spain, Volotea and Air Nostrum have partnered with startup Dante Aeronautical to apply for European pandemic recovery funding to support the conversion of their short- and medium-haul aircraft fleets to electrified propulsion to reduce carbon emissions.
The proposal for the €42 million ($49.5 million) project has been submitted in response to a call for expressions of interest issued by Spain’s transport, mobility and urban agenda ministry. If selected, the project would be funded from €72 billion allocated to Spain from the European Recovery Fund.
The proposed project, which the consortium plans to finance as a public--private initiative, involves developing and implementing modifications to convert 9-19-passenger aircraft to all-electric propulsion. Certification of the first aircraft is planned for 2024, with electrified versions of various aircraft types entering commercial operation by 2026.
Volotea has an all-Airbus fleet, whereas Air Nostrum operates larger ATR and Bombardier CRJ regional aircraft, but both airlines plan to participate in the project, providing market analysis and technical expertise. Dante, with operations in Spain and Australia, would lead the electrification project.
Founded in 2018, Dante began designing a hybrid-electric 19-seat aircraft, the DAX-19, but in 2020 pivoted to modifying existing aircraft. The startup is working with electric motor developer MagniX and Australia’s Sydney Seaplanes to certify a conversion of the 9-passenger Cessna Caravan to all-electric propulsion. Dante also has teamed with Spain’s Isla Air Express to enable electric-powered seaplane flights among the Balearic Islands.
Volotea sees the potential to develop hybrid-electric aircraft to reduce carbon emissions and noise. “For Volotea, supporting this project makes perfect sense, as it fits with our mission to connect cities that need a better service and to be able to do so while minimizing the environmental impact,” Volotea founder and CEO Carlos Munoz says in a statement.
Spain’s largest regional airline, Air Nostrum, is “very interested in operating these routes with electric propulsion when technology allows,” says its president, Carlos Bertomeu. Highlighting the airline’s pioneering work on satellite-based landing systems, he says, “Air Nostrum is used to getting involved in continental consortia that work at the forefront of technology.”
Tecnam’s P-Volt is based on the P2012, which was certified in 2018. But “it is clear that the aircraft will see major changes from the P2012,” says Tecnam’s Russo. The changes are mainly driven by the logic of electric flight. “The battery weight will be huge,” Russo says. “And whatever weight you will have when you take off, you will land at the same weight. This will affect the design of the aircraft, landing gear and wing.”
It is a huge advantage to be able to work from a recently certified aircraft, he says, in contrast to having to start from scratch or use a decades-old design as the basis. “If we started with an aircraft conceived decades ago, we would not only have to introduce electrification but also close many of the gaps,” Russo says. “Twenty years ago, crash-proof seats were not mandatory; fire protection of the interiors was not a requirement.”
The P-Volt will have all the batteries in a pod underneath the fuselage, which will be one of the primary changes to the aircraft. “We didn’t put the batteries into the wing because we wanted to promote the aircraft with belly-mounted battery packs to enable battery swaps and make the aircraft ready for another flight in a matter of minutes,” says Russo.
“We see increased energy density that would unlock further routes,” Rolls-Royce Electrical’s Parr adds. “Having the batteries in the pod also gives [us] the opportunity to think about when we do see an energy density change in two years, how we [would] integrate them to get more range.”
One of the key challenges the manufacturers face is to deliver an aircraft that meets airline operational needs. Wideroe, for example, is used to quick turnarounds at the remote stations that do not take longer than 15 min., including passenger disembarkation and boarding as well as luggage and cargo transfer. Not all stations have the same infrastructure, so quick recharging may not be feasible everywhere.
“We want to design an aircraft with maximum capability but without closing doors for a particular business case for a particular airport or route,” Russo says. “You will also see the possibility to recharge the aircraft on the fly. Whether it will be slow charge or fast charge, we will also be investigating whether it will impact the battery life or the number of cycles. We are ready to propose several paths to any operator. It is also possible that one operator [could] start with one approach [and] then move to a different way as the business develops and as the possibilities and infrastructure evolve.”
“From a Rolls-Royce perspective, we have a containerized battery solution already that will be deployed to airfields and can run off local grids to slowly charge itself up,” Parr says. Those battery swaps could be necessary where fast charging of the on-board batteries is not possible.
“There are different options out there, and maybe there will be different options for different airports because, for instance, the grid is stronger in certain areas than others,” Wideroe’s Aks says. “In Norway, we are quite lucky because the grid here is surprisingly strong. We have hydropower that is distributed from all parts of Norway, compared to the U.S., where you have one big local power plant. Many of the waterfalls are in rural places. We will have sufficient electricity at most places in Norway to operate this kind of aircraft.”
Aks stresses that “we don’t want an aircraft that is customized for Norway; we want an off-the-shelf product that is interesting for the rest of the world but has the characteristics that are needed for our operation in Norway.”
Finnair and Heart see the potential to use short-range electric aircraft to enable flights between smaller towns as a shift away from the hub airport model. “An electric aircraft is better the shorter the route you fly. The shorter you fly, the less you wear the batteries and the faster they can be recharged,” says Heart CEO Anders Forslund.
Finnair cautions that it will take years of work from multiple stakeholders to enable electric commercial aviation. “You need to really understand what is needed at the airports as well,” says Anne Larilahti, Finnair’s head of sustainability. “You can’t expand faster than the available infrastructure that supports these planes.”
Finnair plans to be carbon-neutral by 2045 and is a member of the Nordic Network for Electric Aviation, which aims to standardize electric aircraft infrastructure in the Nordic countries, develop business models for regional point-to-point connectivity and develop aircraft suited to Nordic weather.
“When developing a completely new type of aircraft, you need partners such as airlines and airports to ensure that the whole ecosystem develops in line with the aircraft,” Larilahti says in a statement.