Watch as the world’s largest electric aircraft takes flight

A Seattle company is sending another airplane on a zero-emissions flight. Watch it here Thursday morning….

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Powered by Magnix’s motor, this Cessna “eCaravan” would be the largest electric aircraft to fly so far.

Magnix

Magnix isn’t trying to change aviation overnight; it just believes that any transformation has to begin somewhere. And Thursday morning, the Seattle-based manufacturer of electric motors hopes to nudge the future of air travel forward when it sends another airplane on a zero-emissions flight. It all begins at 8 a.m. PT over Moses Lake, Washington, and you can watch it here.

Unlike the experimental aircraft that have dominated electric flight so far, the Cessna Caravan 208 that will carry Magnix’s motor is a nine-passenger widely used commuter airliner that’s been in production since 1982. By retrofitting an existing small plane, Magnix’s goal is to show that commercial electric flight is possible now, even if a greener flying future with 100-passenger aircraft is still decades away.

“It’s a niche market. But we can start now, get working on it and push the envelope to progress the entire industry,” said Magnix CEO Roei Ganzarski. “Let’s get to market quickly for the main purpose of being able to start this revolution.”

The Magni500 motor that will power the single-propeller “eCaravan” delivers 750 horsepower, which Magnix says is enough propulsion for “middle mile aircraft” that can carry between five and 19 passengers. Though the 37-foot-long Caravan would be the largest all-electric plane to fly so far, a Magni500-powered De Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver became the first aircraft to use the engine when it flew over Vancouver, British Columbia, in December. The flight was a partnership between Harbour Air, a locally based regional airline that owns the seaplane.

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“Up until that point we either saw very small electric aircraft or you heard a lot about why it’s impossible,” Ganzarski said. “So it was very exciting to see an actual airline fly an actual electric aircraft.”

It’s an ambitious roadmap and Magnix will not be the only player in the electric aviation space. A few companies, Uber included, are promising a not-so-distant future of electric air taxis and plenty of others are developing both electric motors and the airframes to use them. 

That list includes established firms like Airbus, Embraer and Rolls-Royce and startups like Ampaire, Pipstrel Aircraft and Boeing-backed Zunum Aero. New York-based Wright Electric is building a prototype electric airliner for European budget airline EasyJet and NASA is developing an all-electric test airplane called the X-57 Maxwell using a modified Tecnam P2006T.

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Harbour Air’s “eBeaver” aircraft soars above the Fraser River on its fist flight in December.

Harbour Air

Advantages and challenges

Ganzarski is eager to describe the advantages of electric flight. He predicts that zero-emissions aircraft will require less maintenance than fuel-based planes and will be 50% to 80% cheaper per hour to operate. That could lead to cheaper ticket prices, he says — and encourage airlines to operate smaller airplanes on more routes to underserved airports.

But the Number One benefit, of course, is zero emissions. Most estimates put the amount of global carbon emissions from commercial aviation at around 2.5%, a number that even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is forecast to grow. 

“Emissions from cars or planes are not only bad for your health, but bad for the environment,” Ganzarski said. “The fact that electric aircrafts produce zero emissions is a huge positive.”

But he also admits that the challenges of electric flight are steep. Just as electric car manufacturers grapple with range anxiety, Magnix has to prove that the lithium ion batteries powering the motors, which are similar to those used in cars, can deliver feasible flight times. 

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The zero-emissions Magni500 motor will deliver 750 horsepower to the Caravan’s single engine.

Magnix

Replacing the conventional engine on both the Caravan and the Beaver with a battery-powered motor, for example, cuts their ranges from 1,200 miles and 455 miles, respectively, to about 100 miles. That’s hardly enough to fly cross-country, but long enough for the commuter routes of an airline like Harbour Air. (Charging times are supposed to be comparable to those of a Tesla Supercharger.)

“The challenge is that batteries are not as power potent as fuel,” Ganzarski said. “We chose lithium ion, because at this stage, it’s the most proven technology or proven chemistry to provide the energy and safety that we need to fly the aircraft.”

Yet another challenge is weight. An aircraft needs to get not only itself, its passengers and its cargo off the ground, it also needs to lift whatever powers it. To that end, any battery Magnix’s motor uses can’t be heavier than the equivalent amount of fuel. 

“For aerospace, weight is critical because otherwise the airplane simply doesn’t take off and perform,” Ganzarski said. “When you’re retrofitting an aircraft, you’re using the same weight the current aircraft has … that’s your limit to how much battery you can put in.”

Flying into future

Following more test flights with the Beaver, the Caravan and other aircraft (the Eviation Alice, a nine-passenger commuter aircraft that’s set to fly later this year, will use Magnix’s 375-horsepower Magni250 motor), Ganzarski says his company’s next step is to win FAA certification for its technology. (The company is also developing a 1,500-horsepower motor for larger aircraft yet to come.)

Among other things, Magnix will have to prove to regulators that its motors are as safe as fuel-based engines and meet requirements that electric aircraft will always fly with enough reserve battery power (usually 30 minutes) to reach an airport in case of an emergency.

Only after winning that approval, which Ganzarski says should happen by the end of 2021, will a Magnix-power aircraft be able to carry passengers. But even now Harbour Air is planning on retrofitting its entire fleet into “ePlanes” powered by Magnix’s motors

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Built by Israel-based, Eviation Aircraft, the Magnix-powered Alice is supposed to take its first electric flight this year. 

Eviation Aircraft

“I’ve been convinced for some period of time that the future of transportation in general — and certainly aviation — is electrified,” said Harbour Air CEO Greg McDougall just before the December flight. 

As for when we can see larger electric aircraft in the skies, Ganzarski said a zero-emissions plane capable of carrying 19 passengers is 10 years away and one carrying 100 passengers is about 30 to 40 years away. Hybrid aircraft could come sooner then and developing technologies like lithium sulfur batteries or hydrogen fuel cells may accelerate the timeline. But until that happens, Magnix is working with multiple options.

“We don’t know, and no one in the industry yet knows, which of the technologies will prevail,” Ganzarski said. “But we’ll be ready. Wherever the electrons come from, our propulsion system will be able to use them to provide that power to the aircraft.”

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