By Marc Sellouk, Founder and CEO of Flewber
As someone who has spent the entirety of my life marveling over aviation, each time I come across a new story about electric, SAF (sustainable aviation fuel), or eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, I feel like I did as a child when the latest edition of my favorite comic book would hit the stands. It conjures up visions of Saturday mornings watching the Jetsons as well as youthful memories of watching with wonder and fascination as jets flew overhead on their approach to JFK. Never would I have thought that in my lifetime, we’d be on the cusp of this type of transformative propulsion of aviation technology. To say it’s exciting is indeed an understatement.
Sometimes though, it’s best to try to look beyond the splashy headlines, futuristic photos, and mockups in order to realize a more grounded reality of this e-craft revolution. As the CEO of an aviation technology company, I always try to stay up to date on industry news. Recently, I came upon an article by a very talented writer named Vaclav Smil. Vaclav’s article drew me in from its somewhat profound opening sentence. In fact, I may have a plaque made, to hang in my office, using its first nine words: “Exaggeration has become the default method for news reporting.”
I immediately scrolled to the top of my screen, expecting to see that the article was from The New York Times, Forbes, or Washington Post but instead, I saw that I was reading a piece from the IEEE Spectrum. IEEE is the acronym for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Somehow, with the luck of a first-time poker player, a link to the house organ of perhaps the most key profession in this anticipated electric plane revolution — electrical and electronics engineers — made it to my inbox.
The same people who will be engineering the systems that power such things as eVTOL aircraft break down the speed of the timeline to two key points: Energy and Cost; we’ll look at energy first. Currently, the technology is certainly there for a short-haul battery-powered aircraft revolution to begin. Batteries, as we know them now, are capable of sustaining flight for up to 5 people (1 pilot and 4 passengers) for a total distance of about 50 to 150 miles, depending on the e-craft.
Joby, a California based leader in the eVTOL field has already made great strides in more than just the aircraft itself but also in shoring up its pilot pipeline as well as a recent agreement it signed with Japan’s ANA airline where Joby’s eVTOL will act as a shuttle between outlying cities and international airports serviced by ANA in Japan. The rub comes into play on long-haul domestic and international flights, where the current large turbofan engines generate 20 to 40 times more power than even the best batteries and most efficient engines in production today. It’s commonly believed that batteries are at best a decade or two away from being able to support the power required to generate the needed thrust to lift 300 to 500 people off the ground, let alone sustain flight for the time needed.
The second factor in this e-craft revolution is one that should strike at the heart of all CEOs, as it does mine, and that’s cost. Running an airline requires massive investment and planning. Those numbers increase exponentially for commercial carriers. Given that most narrow and wide-body aircraft have an approximate life of about twenty years, today’s fleet was planned and capitalized with the foresight and funds of yesteryear. This single fact alone tells you that our industry’s next two decades have already been planned and funded to the degree that was needed to accomplish those plans.
None of these factors should dampen any excitement for what’s coming. Rather, they should just serve to put the excitement in proper perspective. The electric, net-zero CO2 aircraft revolution is indeed upon us. I know that my company will be a player in this market, as will many others. We just need to do what we’ve been doing since those Saturday mornings watching the Jetsons; be excited, plan for it and most importantly, do what we’ve done the entire time, let the technology catch up to the dream.