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Electric aviation is slowly becoming a reality – can it transform the supply chain world?

Electric cars have really shot into the spotlight in the past decade, owing to rising environmental concerns and the steep hike in oil prices. But cars are not the only mode of transport that could do with an electric engine revamp.

 

In June this year, the first fully electric commercially ready airplane manufactured by Pipistrel took to the skies for an hour long flight in Oslo with the Norwegian transport minister as its passenger. Already famous for being one of the biggest markets for the electric car Tesla, Norway is planning to introduce electric aircrafts in the commercial aviation space by just 2025 and to completely electrify their aviation by 2040.

 

The environmental impact of the aviation industry is a topic that has long been brushed under the carpet until very recently. In just one round trip flight between Delhi and Mumbai, your flight generates 5% of the greenhouse gases that your car takes a year to emit. In the United States, the aviation industry accounts for 11% of the total transport related emissions. A European Commission study claims that aircraft emissions today have nearly doubled since the 1990s. The amount of greenhouse emissions and the relative proximity to the ozone layer at which they are emitted make airplanes especially strong contenders for electrification.

 

The carbon footprint is not the only reason to electrify our aircrafts. Electrical motors are almost noiseless, have better fuel efficiency, reduce aircraft maintenance, allow the plane to fly at much higher altitudes and are considerably cheaper for everyone including the airlines and the customer.

 

Historically, electrifying the airplane has presented considerable challenges. The Lithium-Ion battery is the most popular energy source for the electric plane. It is also the aircraft’s heaviest component. The reduced energy density means that aircrafts need to carry massive batteries in order to stay airborne – while the traditional airplane carries around 30% of its weight in fuel, even the most experimental electric prototypes are struggling to get this number below 60%.

 

Aviation has traditionally been a very conservative industry when it comes to new tech – nobody likes to take risks because nobody wants planes to fall out of the sky. It is the recent improvements in battery technology (driven by the automobile and the mobile phone industries) that has really perked up the interest in electric aircrafts.

 

Another event that has raised serious hopes in the industry is the circumnavigation of the earth by the Swiss made experimental electric aircraft Solar Impulse 2 between 2015-16. This flight marked a wave of investor interest in startups developing electric aircrafts. The Pipistrel flight in Norway only makes it clearer that the future is closer than we think it is.

 

Year Funding in Aviation (million $)
2014 1235.44
2015 3387.93
2016 1621.13
2017 2445.67

 

Pipistrel is actually just one of the many enterprises working on this cutting edge problem. NASA has long been researching electric alternatives for their rocket launchers and high altitude flights for many years. Boeing and JetBlue have been backing Zunum Aero, a company that has been trying to build a family of 10 to 50 seater electric airplanes since 2013. Airbus, Rolls Royce and Siemens are working together to build Airbus E-Fan X, a hybrid electric multiseater airplane.

 

Among the newbies, the Israel based Eviation Electric, is  working to develop a fully electric prototype called Alice. Backed by the Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator, Wright Electric aims to create a short distance commercial airliner along with the UK carrier EasyJet by 2027. Ampaire is another startup in the frey, aiming to get their prototype FAA approved by 2020.

 

Startup Total Funding ($ million) Last Funding Round Where?
Pipistrel 2.1 Grant Slovenia
Eviation Israel
Wright Electric 0.12 Seed Los Angeles, California
Ampaire 2.63 Seed Los Angeles, California
Zunum Aero 0.8 Grant Kirkland,Washington
Joby Aviation 131 Series B San Francisco

 

A key characteristic of this new wave of industries is that there is a collaborative rather than a competitive feeling around all of them. Perhaps it is because they are dealing with the same set of problems – from technical to the more bureaucratic ones, like achieving FAA approval, all the players seem to be working together to perhaps create the biggest revolution the aviation industry has witnessed yet. As the Norwegian transport and communication minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen put it aptly, “It’s all about showing that it works, and then the market will develop.”

 

The game has been changing in the Indian aviation space too, albeit in a slightly different context. Earlier this year, the government announced plans to double the amount of airports in the country from around 100 to 200 in the next ten years. 31 new airports are set to be operational by April 2019, making India the world’s fastest growing aviation market. Most of the new airports are to be located in tier II and tier III cities, expanding the air network from the metropolises to the urban regional spaces in India.

 

While the Indian government looks to make flying affordable to the common man in the coming decade, electric aviation offers the dream of a cheaper and cleaner flying experience. The current generation of the electric aircraft is best suited for short distance flights – around 500 to 800 kilometers. The introduction of the larger and more connected aviation network in India makes it the perfect testing ground for commercialization of electric aircrafts.

 

All this is welcome news for the supply chain industry, which is searching for better ways to connect places that were previously only accessible by road. A cheaper, quicker and more efficient option may well arise in the form of electric aviation. With both the technology and the infrastructure maturing at around the same time, the Indian supply chain industry needs to gear up and be ready for some rapid changes in the horizon.

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