The first-of-its-kind flight by an all-electric plane has renewed hope for minimizing the carbon footprint of the world’s aviation industry. Christened Alice, the small, nine-passenger battery-powered aircraft took off from Grant County International Airport in Washington on Wednesday, September 28 for its debut flight. The prototype plane flew for eight minutes before making a successful landing.
The science and other stuff to know
Although the short duration of the flight might sound like a minor achievement to some, it could well be as significant as the Wright Brothers’ famous December 17, 1903 attempt, which inaugurated the aerial age with the successful first flights of a flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Remember, the first plane flew for just 59 seconds and managed to cover only 259 meters (852 feet).
Alice’s maker – Washington-based Eviation – stated although it would be a while before all-electric aircraft would become ready for commercial operations, the historic flight will offer important indicators and data to help improve the prototype’s design, according to The Seattle Times.
Evian’s target? All electric commercial and cargo flights over distances of between 240 and 300 kilometers (150 and 250 miles). The company plans to offer Alice in either a nine or six-seat configuration along with a cargo version. The seating capacity, for now, is limited by the battery size and strength. The prototype is powered by 21,500 battery cells like the ones used in today’s electric cars.
But there’s a catch. Batteries add immense weight to the airplane and legitimate concerns remain over certain types of batteries failing without a warning.
Speaking to The Seattle Times, Eviation CEO Greg Davis agreed that the battery technology to make all-electric planes commercially viable and efficient was still under development. Nevertheless, he called the eight-minute flight “the first radical change in aerospace propulsion technology”.
With the effects of climate change making themselves increasingly evident across the world in the guise of super floods and unprecedented droughts, any development that has the potential to reduce humans’ carbon footprint is a step in the right direction.
Per conservative estimates, aviation contributes nearly 3.5 percent to global warming. If advancements in battery technology offer enough economic incentive to companies like Eviation to pursue widespread deployment of all-electrical aircraft in their operations, we could expect aviation’s carbon footprint to drop considerably.
All-electric commercial planes would allow aviation companies to conform to stricter environmental laws and regulations expected shortly. More importantly, they would ensure the continuation of livelihood for millions of workers associated with the industry.
In his conversation with The Seattle Times, Davis said Eviation had envisioned passenger operations to begin in 2024 but the goal now seemed at least five years away. He said it would take almost three more years for development, followed by two additional years for flight tests and certification.
But Alice’s success, and those of other all-electric commercial planes, would eventually hinge on advancement in, and development of, reliable battery technology that can power the planes safely and economically. “We look like we’re going to have some fairly favorable battery technology available to us in five years,” Davis told The Seattle Times.
Alice was named after the protagonist in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland. Only time will tell if its adventures remain a dream or turn into a reality.