A Los Angeles-based startup moved the aviation industry toward a cleaner and more energy-efficient future with its recent test flight of the largest hybrid-electric aircraft ever flown.
Ampaire Inc.‘s retrofitted six-seat Cessna 337 Skymaster — equipped with the company’s proprietary electric propulsion system and powered by a lightweight battery — flew the skies above Camarillo Airport on Thursday, June 6.
The demonstration arrived on the heels of the Federal Aviation Administration’s airworthiness approval in May, which allowed Ampaire to begin a flight test program. The company will fly the aircraft several times a week through August as it gathers data about the plane’s electric propulsion performance characteristics.
Hawaii pilot project
Ampaire, housed in the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator at 525 S. Hewitt St. in Los Angeles, will begin a pilot project on a commercial route over Maui later this year. The company plans to have a small fleet of retrofitted 337s ready for commercial use by 2021.
Cory Combs, Ampaire’s co-founder and chief technology officer, said the aircraft that flew Thursday is a flying “research test bed.”
“It has a bunch of equipment in it measuring how it’s flying and how our power train is performing,” he said. “But our team has been working on a second plane, which is for the Hawaii program. That one won’t have all the test equipment in it and will fly an actual commercial route in partnership with Mokulele Airlines and Elemental Excelerator.”
Elemental is one of the world’s top cleantech business incubators. Mokulele Airlines will provide Ampaire with hangar space, parts, pilots and maintenance.
The retrofitted Cesnas will be able to fly 200 miles on a single charge — more than enough for the average commuter route, according to Combs.
“We actually have the range to hit nearly all of the commercial routes that fly aircraft of this size,” he said.
How it works
The company’s battery-powered electric motor creates a ‘parallel hybrid’ system that allows the plane’s internal combustion engine and electric motor to work in concert to optimize power output as the aircraft flies, operating much like a hybrid car.
The lightweight lithium battery includes hardware designed by a U.S.-based company.
Hybrid-electric powered planes allow fuel costs to be reduced by 50 to 70 percent, depending and maintenance is significantly reduced, according to Ampaire. They’re also quieter on takeoffs and landings and tailpipe emissions are dramatically reduced.
Aki Marceau, managing director and mobility portfolio manager for Elemental Excelerator, said her company chose to partner with Ampaire for obvious reasons.
“In the U.S., aviation accounts for 3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions,” Marceau said via email. “That number is much higher in Hawaii, as 20.4 percent of all GHG emissions come from aviation.”
From the ground up
Ampaire plans to eventually build its own zero-emission, all-electric airplanes from the ground up. But that won’t happen anytime soon, according to Combs.
“Think of it like the Tesla Roadster,” he said. “Tesla spent about 10 years before they actually built a new car. They started by first selling engineering services and their power train to Mercedes and Toyota. Then they took that power train and put it in a Lotus. Only much, much later did they go and build an entirely new car.”
A growing market
Ampaire’s project comes amid a boom of interest in hybrid-electric and electric aircraft designs.
Boeing-backed Zunum Aero in Kirkland, Wash., is working on a 12-seat hybrid-electric commuter aircraft to take wing in the early 2020s, with a 50-seater to follow at the end of the decade. Airbusis working on a 19-seat hybrid aircraft for the 2020s, and the company eventually plans to build a 100-seat hybrid-electric electro-liner.
Israel’s Eviation is developing Alice, a nine-passenger commuter and business electric aircraft, and Canadian regional airline Harbour Air expects to begin flights with a modified de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver seaplane later this year using an electric propulsion system made by Magnix.