Electric flight: turning the dream into a realityDr. Frank Anton believes the history of flight is defined by three pivotal moments. At the dawn of the 20th century, in 1903, the first engine-powered aircraft touched down after soaring for a total of twelve seconds. This was aviation’s first disruptive revolution: the airplane was born and an epoch of aeronautical innovation had begun.
Jumping ahead to the middle of the 20th century, as a new class of tourists sipped cocktails high over the Atlantic, a recent invention – the turbofan – propelled them and the glamorous Golden Age of Flying into the future. This air-breathing jet engine, although highly evolved, still powers air travel today and its commercial introduction in the 1950s and 60s can be considered the second disruptive aeronautical revolution.
Now in 2017, almost sixty years on from the adoption of the jet engine, Dr. Frank Anton and his world-class team are working away on the third disruptive revolution in the history of flight. And this time it’s electric and the stakes are even higher.
“My goal is to hand over electric propulsion to the next generation in order to make aviation continue on this planet. Because if we don’t it will disappear,” says Dr. Anton from his office on the Siemens campus in Erlangen, Germany.
The risk to aviation? “Regional traffic will vanish from our skies if we cannot lower carbon dioxide levels. And we absolutely cannot lower carbon dioxide, whilst keeping planes in the sky, without electric propulsion.”
That’s a grave prospect for a life-long lover of everything with wings. But Dr. Anton is optimistic about the future of flight as he and his team have already designed, built and flown a fully working hybrid-electrical propulsion system.
My goal is to hand over electric propulsion to the next generation in order to make aviation continue on this planet.Dr. Frank Anton, Head eAircraft
The problem of power
When Dr. Anton and his counterpart at Airbus started the project, the whole world still believed that electric flight made no sense. “All the specialists said it was impossible. We both thought it was impossible.” But as the newly established team of aviation experts and electrical engineers came together to work on the problem, they started to believe, little by little, that maybe it was more than just a dream.
The first challenge the team had to overcome was the power-to-weight ratio. A normal electric motor provides around 1 kilowatt of power for every kilogram of weight. To get a small plane to take off and fly the team needed to extract at least 6 kilowatts of power from every kilogram of engine weight. The specialists were skeptical.
But Dr. Anton’s team proved them wrong. And quickly. On the very first run they managed to produce a result that was only just short of that target – an early achievement that they went on to build upon, demonstrating commercially viable electric propulsion was possible.
Modeling the future of flight
Their secret weapon: Product Lifecycle Management solutions. Or PLM. A software suite developed by Siemens that allowed the team to design, model and test every single detail of the proposed motor before manufacturing a single physical part. “With such a complex problem where everything has to work together, simulating the whole propulsion system was the only method we could use to rethink our approach to creating a system in a completely different way.”
One such breakthrough PLM provided was the ability to eliminate all unnecessary parts in the design by replicating the evolutionary processes of the human body. “We removed all of the structural elements that are not needed in order to concentrate the strong forces it can take with the minimum amount of material. Just like the way the human body builds bones by only growing material where the force lines are to give you a lighter but stronger structure.”
Finding new ways to work have been key to his team’s success. His belief is that not only do you need to create a workplace where people of all levels of experience can thrive and contribute, but you also need to start innovation with the customer. “New technology has no value unless there is a customer value. How do you find out that value? Only with the right customer, because only then can you understand the application and start to understand what can be done with the new technology, if at all.”
Dr. Anton had found the right customers and partners in EXTRA, Diamond Aircraft, and Airbus. He had built the team who had designed the models. And together they had constructed an electrical propulsion system that was both lightweight and powerful. It was time to fly.
We are not breaking the laws of physics. We’re simply combining existing solutions in a new way.Dr. Frank Anton, Head eAircraft
A historical milestone
And fly it did. In 2015 – in almost silence – an aerobatic aircraft lifted off from an airfield in north-central Germany powered by, for the very first time in the history of aviation, an electric drive system in this power class.
And since that record-breaking flight the Electric Aircraft Team have achieved another milestone: powering a larger two-seater plane with the same system.
Dr. Anton, an experienced pilot himself, was one of the first people to fly the plane. “It is fantastic. It is really like driving an electric car, everything is so much smoother. ” Quieter too. “You take off your headphones and realise you don’t need them. You can talk to your co-pilot without the need for an intercom – that takes some getting used to.”
A greener, quieter form of travel. Dr. Anton believes this is what all 100-seater, regional aircrafts could look and sound like by 2035, helping society to reduce carbon dioxide levels and securing the future of flight for the next generation. The third disruptive innovation is airborne; the age of electrical flight has begun. And Dr. Anton, his team at Siemens and his collaborative business partners aren’t stopping here.