Blue-sky thinking: how UK disruptors are pushing the boundaries of aerospace electrification
Disruption is the key to innovation in any industry. Take Tesla, for example. In the mere 12 years since the launch of its first luxury electric vehicle (EV), there has been a boom in demand for EVs worldwide, forcing OEMs across the industry to catch up and triggering acceleration in both battery development and automated driving technology.
Similarly, in aerospace, while large commercial operators like Airbus and Boeing have published plans to adopt more electrical and hybrid systems by 2030, a handful of small, agile firms are pushing the boundaries of aerospace electrification right now.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, one of the early opportunities for full electric propulsion is the Urban Air Taxi, a category of lightweight aerial vehicle with a range of up to 50km, carrying between one and four passengers with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). This is where UK start-up Vertical Aerospace is focusing its efforts.
“I love being considered a disruptor,” says Lawrence Blakley, Head of Power Supply and Systems Installation at Vertical Aerospace. “The ultimate disruption is that we will change how people fly in an urban environment.”
Vertical Aerospace began developing a proof of concept (POC) for an electric aircraft in 2016. This eventually evolved into Seraph, a prototype fully-electric heavy-lift drone. During Seraph’s maiden test flight in 2019, the team were able to demonstrate sizeable lifting capability of 250kg, and reach maximum speeds of 80mph.
In 2020, despite the setbacks caused by COVID-19, Vertical Aerospace are pressing forward with the development of a new, winged prototype vehicle.
“The main advantage of a vehicle like this is the distributed electrical propulsion,” says Lawrence. “It’s completely battery powered, so we have no emissions in cities, and there are minimal moving parts so maintenance is low. This whole idea of having a single-point failure (the worst case scenario being loss of a motor in forward flight), while still achieving safe flight and landing is a step change in aerial short-range transport.”
The next milestone in aerospace electrification is to achieve a manned full-electric flight, something that UK SME Electroflight hope to achieve later this year. The ACCEL project, led by Rolls-Royce and part-funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), will attempt a world record for the fastest all-electric aircraft at over 300mph later in 2020.
Electroflight are principally focused on the design engineering, which includes developing a lightweight carbon-composite structure, as well as transferring learning and technology from the automotive and motorsport industries to develop novel battery systems capable of delivering 400kw consistently during flight. Achieving this, means developing sophisticated cooling systems and other safety measures to prevent battery failure. WMG is supporting Electroflight in the development of the ACCEL battery and powertrain, including characterisation and validation for the safety aspects.
“As you can imagine, having a Rolls Royce test pilot in the aircraft really raises the stakes in terms of where you have to be with safety and reliability,” says Stjohn Youngman, Managing Director of Electroflight. “It’s a really challenging programme to bring a lot of new technologies onto an aircraft platform and then demonstrate it in flight.”
Both Lawrence and Stjohn agree that the UK is uniquely placed to continue innovating in this space.
“The UK has huge capability in electrification,” Lawrence reflects. “There are lots of small companies pushing boundaries. There’s a real advantage to be taken, supporting the cutting edge of electrification.”
The commercial benefits are clear, with the eVTOL market booming globally. But challenges lie ahead for disruptors seeking to seize these opportunities. As the UK prepares to withdraw from the EU, certification and regulation will shift away from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and onto the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). For the UK to continue positioning itself as a world leader in this space, both the CAA and disruptors must work together to create a regulatory environment that allows innovation to flourish while maintaining adequate safety standards.
Lawrence Blakley, Head of Power Supply and Systems Installation at Vertical Aerospace
Stjohn Youngman, Managing Director of Electroflight