Rolls-Royce and the struggle for aircraft electrification
In September 2021, UK engineering leader Rolls-Royce recorded the first flight of its all-electric aircraft, “Spirit of Innovation”.
Image Credit: petrmalinak/Shutterstock.com
The plane took off from Boscombe Down, a UK defense site run by QinetiQ, and landed around 15 minutes later. The historic flight marked an intense testing phase to collect data on aircraft electrification technology, which Rolls-Royce hopes will see wider adoption in the sustainable design of aircraft of the future. In November 2021, Spirit of Innovation broke two speed records, becoming the fastest all-electric aircraft in the world, averaging 555.9 km/h (345.4 mph) over 3 km and 532.1 km /h (330 mph) over 15 km.
“Spirit of Innovation”: Inaugural flight is the first success of flight electrification
Rolls-Royce claims the electric powertrain driving the plane is the most powerful battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft. It was developed as part of the ACCEL (accelerating the electrification of flight) program led by Rolls-Royce.
The electric powertrain technology was developed in Filton, South West England, at the Rolls-Royce base. The plane has been moved to Boscombe Down base in neighboring Wiltshire for the testing phase.
Rolls-Royce teamed up with Electroflight on the project and spent £6 million. The rest of ACCEL’s funding came from the Institute of Aerospace Technology (ATI), which uses UK government funding from the Innovate UK Grant for Advanced Research and Development.
The ATI is particularly interested in funding projects that will lead to new UK capabilities and put the country ahead in the uphill race to decarbonise aviation.
‘Spirit of Innovation’ draws its power from a 400kW battery built by Electroflight, based in Gloucestershire, UK. Three electric motors built by manufacturer Yasa, based in Oxford, UK, convert this energy into 500 horsepower each.
Rolls-Royce plans to use technology developed through the ACCEL project to inform development in other areas of sustainable aviation. A complete electric propulsion system for eVTOL or small transport aircraft is expected to come from the project, which Rolls-Royce intends to offer to its customers.
The company says air taxis and eVTOLs have similar battery requirements to the “Spirit of Innovation” aircraft. The batteries’ innovative storage density in the “spirit of innovation” allows it to reach record speeds, while regional transport aircraft will use these batteries to reliably carry human payloads around a city.
Rolls-Royce | “Spirit of Innovation” is officially the fastest all-electric plane in the world
Video credit: Rolls-Royce/YouTube.com
Next steps for ACCEL
Rolls-Royce will roll out the technology developed under Project ACCEL to the consumer market in about five years, according to the company’s plans.
It has partnered with Tecnam, an Italian aircraft manufacturer, and Scandinavia’s largest regional airline, Widerøe. The partnership will see an all-electric passenger aircraft deployed to serve the commuter market by 2026.
Urban mobility is another exciting area of application for ACCEL technology. Rolls-Royce mentioned Vertical Aerospace, a sustainable aerospace manufacturer based in Bristol, UK, in relation to ACCEL’s commercialization plans.
Are electrified planes the future of sustainable flight?
These types of projects are not intended for intercontinental travel. Instead, smaller 20-seat passenger carriers are expected to meet demand for regional commuter flights between cities. Smaller air taxis will meet urban transportation needs.
These new technologies could unlock the rapid decarbonization of the travel sector. Electrifying these small planes means they can be powered entirely from renewable energy sources, removing a major contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.
The fuel requirements of large intercontinental aircraft cannot be met by battery storage or electric power using current technology. However, Rolls-Royce expects the technology it is developing under the ACCEL program to complement aircraft energy needs and decrease the amount of fuel they burn.
Aircraft currently use mini-generators to provide electricity for in-flight entertainment and other passenger amenities. According to Rolls-Royce, battery storage systems developed at ACCEL for aviation can be used to make large aircraft more efficient, using less fossil fuel overall.
When will we see electrified planes in our cities?
According to Rolls-Royce and its partners in the ACCEL project, electrified planes that perform regional flights between cities could become a reality in just a few years. Rolls-Royce’s roadmap to bring the technology to market by 2025 will see it feature in the first generation of small electrified passenger flights.
Heart Aerospace, based in Sweden, said its 19-seat all-electric aircraft will begin commercial flights by mid-2026. The ES-19 uses a conventional aluminum airframe and wing and has an expected range of 222 miles, or 400 km. It will be able to operate from runways as small as 800m in length.
Aura Aero, based in France, announced this year that its regional electric aircraft (ERA) will also be certified for commercial use in 2026.
There are currently around 200 known electrified aircraft projects in development, all in the race to bring the next generation of sustainable air travel to market.
References and further reading
Baker, H. (2021). Rolls-Royce to transform air travel with an all-electric aircraft. [Online] Live business. Available at: https://www.business-live.co.uk/manufacturing/rolls-royce-bid-transform-air-21686884
Bremner, C. (2021). The French electric airliner will take off in five years. [Online] The temperature. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/aura-aero-electric-planes-np2362l2f
OnlineOtley, T. (2021). Rolls-Royce’s all-electric plane makes its first flight. [Online] Business trip. Available at: https://www.businesstraveller.com/business-travel/2021/09/18/rolls-royces-all-electric-aircraft-completes-first-flight/
Sarsfield, K. (2019). Electric aircraft projects in the top 200 by the end of the year: Roland Berger. [Online] Global Flight. Available at: https://www.flightglobal.com/business-aviation/electric-aircraft-projects-to-top-200-by-year-end-roland-berger/132666.article
Wolfsteller, P. (2020). Swedish Heart Aerospace presents an all-electric regional plane. [Online] Global Flight. Available at: https://www.flightglobal.com/airframers/swedens-heart-aerospace-presents-all-electric-regional-aircraft/140307.article.
Watson, G. (2022) Rolls-Royce’s 100% electric plane breaks world records. [Online] BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-60068786