An Air Race E aircraft has carried out the first-ever flight by an all-electric race plane. As the competition’s founding partner, Airbus is playing an important role in developing a platform to create cleaner and more efficient electric air vehicles.
As Rein Inge Hoff eases back on the control stick, the modified Cassutt IIIM rises almost silently into the air above Tønsberg Airport in southern Norway. It’s a historic moment: Hoff is the first pilot to fly an all-electric race plane. For 15 minutes, he puts the Nordic Air Racing machine through its paces, reaching a full-power cruise of 180 knots (333 km/h), before landing safely.
It is also an important breakthrough for electric aviation. Eventually, the aircraft will hit speeds of more than 400 km/h just metres above the ground as the world’s top pilots take part in the Air Race E series, which starts in 2023.
The world’s first all-electric airplane competition, Air Race E is much more than just a thrilling spectacle, though. As an official founding partner, Airbus is providing the 17 teams with research data and industry expertise to help collectively drive the development of cleaner, faster and more technologically advanced electric engines. Some of the insights gained from the competition and more especially the lessons learned from making fly propulsive electrical systems will be key assets for Airbus solutions (from urban air mobility to, eventually, commercial aircraft).
“More than ever, when we look at the concept of sustainable mobility, the challenges push us to work differently, to be disruptive and to use the learnings and achievements from a mix of sectors. In this case, flying aircraft using tried and tested electric technologies from the automotive industry is proof of that and is an approach we fully support as part of our electrification journey.”
Karim Mokaddem, Airbus Electrification Fast Track Leader
Paving the way for electric innovation
As a global aerospace pioneer, Airbus is committed to developing, building and testing alternative-propulsion systems to reduce the CO2 emissions of aircraft, helicopters, satellites and future UAM vehicles.
Aerospace is not alone in this journey, of course: alternative propulsion is the main challenge for all transport sectors, and electric and hybrid-electric technologies are already revolutionising mobility on the ground. Aviation may face different challenges, but the industry can learn from the experiences of the automotive sector.
“More than ever, when we look at the concept of sustainable mobility, the challenges push us to work differently, to be disruptive and to use the learnings and achievements from a mix of sectors,” says Karim Mokaddem, Airbus Electrification Fast Track Leader. “In this case, flying aircraft using tried and tested electric technologies from the automotive industry is proof of that and is an approach we fully support as part of our electrification journey.”
Just as electric motorsport is pushing disruptive innovation in ground vehicles, Air Race E is expected to soon bring similar benefits to aviation.
There are many synergies between Air Race E flight testbeds and Airbus programmes like electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOLs) and micro-hybridisation projects, which aim to power a growing number of on-board systems via batteries.
Mokaddem says some of the best practices from Air Race E aircraft, lessons learned from the competition challenges, such as battery integration, system engineering and techno-bricks performance and finally safety could serve Airbus solutions. They are also helping to pave the way on standards and regulations around key electrification technologies like embarked batteries. In addition, making fly technologies coming from the automotive market like motors, batteries, converters is an approach that we fully support to improve the way we could cross fertilize ideas, technologies, roadmaps from different markets and accelerate towards our ambition to pioneer the aerospace decarbonisation. Air Race E is for us the best flying testbed to reach this objective and assess the first potential.
Green light for sustainable aviation
While Nordic Air Racing may have claimed the honour of the first-ever electric race plane flight, all 17 teams will now spend the coming weeks and months rigorously testing their aircraft on the ground and in the air.
Air Race E’s first race is scheduled to take place in 2023. It will mark the official start of a mainstream platform that can accelerate innovation in electric propulsion.
As Air Race E CEO Jeff Zaltman says, “The world is depending on Airbus and partnerships like ours to guide the aerospace industry onto a sustainable path for generations to come.”