AMT Magazine ended 2020 with a lead story on the emergence and runaway growth of the electric vehicle industry, and the opportunities this offers for Australian manufacturers. We begin this year looking at the electrification of flight, which could be similarly transformative. By Brent Balinski.

Nowadays it’s reasonably often you’ll see a Telstra in a well-to-do neighbourbourhood. Electric-powered passenger aircraft are not as prevalent as electric vehicles (EVs), but electrified flight is fast approaching.

The first Australian flight – a Pipistrel Alpha Electro two-seater – took off from Jandakot Airport in Western Australia in January 2018. In December Sydney Seaplanes announced plans to retrofit one of its Cessnas with electric motors made by MagniX, a leader in electric propulsion founded in Gold Coast, Queensland. Sydney Seaplanes hopes to offer Sydney Harbour-Palm Beach e-flights in early 2023 and possibly to Canberra after that. Further afield, the Norwegian airport operator Avenor has set a goal that all short flights (90 minutes and under) will be electric-powered by 2040.

Dr Jake Whitehead, Tritium E-Mobility Fellow at the University of Queensland, says there are two main types of electric aircraft: short-haul planes and vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL, including drones). Whitehead, who has been reviewing the field for about three years, says the main drivers have been falling battery costs and progressive improvements in energy density. He is excited by early deployments of electric planes and VTOL aircraft up to 150km in range, though he sees difficulties at longer distances.

“Realistically, I think we are still some time away from electric aviation playing a major role in medium-haul routes (500-1,000km)” says Whitehead. “But if higher-density chemistries such as metal-air batteries become commercially viable in the coming decades, this flight range is likely possible. I don’t expect that any of us will be catching an electric plane overseas anytime soon, but hybridised engines may become more prevalent.”

Energy density is a major limitation. According to an article in Scientific American, top-notch batteries offer 250 watt-hours per kilogram, compared to 12,000 watt-hours for jet fuel. Optimists like MagniX liken the situation to the poor ranges of Tesla cars in their early days. Once a market develops, it will drive battery development.

There are also optimists who see a role for Australia in the development of an electric aviation industry.

MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski says that EV fast charger company Tritium is an example of what Australian manufacturers could do, adding that he sees charging and energy source (e.g. batteries or hydrogen fuel cells) technologies as two obvious areas of potential. MagniX is aiming for certification of its two current products in 2022.

Andrew Moore, CEO and founder of AMSL Aero, cites the proud history of Jabiru Aircraft in Bundaberg, which has been producing low-volume, excellent-value light aircraft for international customers since 1988, as evidence that with the right focus, Australia’s manufacturing and aerospace engineering community can be globally relevant for the flying machines of this new era.

AMSL is based at Bankstown Airport in Sydney. Moore adds: “If you look across the runway, you can see the remnants of the [de Havilland Aircraft] factory that was built in the 1940s that used to output hundreds of airplanes a year. So there has been a long aerospace industry [heritage], particularly in this part of Sydney.”

Whitehead adds: “I think Australia has an important role to play in e-mobility more broadly, and that is particularly in terms of mining battery minerals, and potentially manufacturing these batteries locally in the near future. This has wider applications than just electric aviation, but I think that is where our primary strength is.”

AMSL: Bankstown’s box kite-inspired flying car

We don’t manufacture passenger aircraft here, but Australia has a good deal of aerospace capability if you know where to look. This is the opinion of Andrew Moore, who previously served as chief engineer on a project developing a five-seat helicopter for Yamaha Motor Australia, before heading back to school to do a PhD.

“Australia does things like light aviation particularly well,” says Moore. “We’re able to do very complex engineering activities for a lower cost than what we would do if we were doing it in Seattle or [elsewhere] in the United States. To try to get to where we’re at now, we’ve spent roughly a fifth of what the major competitors globally have spent.”

Moore quit his PhD (on optimising electric propulsion) early on to form AMSL, with his wife Siobhan Lyndon in 2017. Last November they held a public event showing the first full-size prototype of their Vertiia platform.

The VTOL aircraft is initially being developed in an aero-ambulance version, under a CRC-P collaboration with Mission Systems, CareFlight and University of Sydney. (Other projects have been supported by the Defence Innovation Hub and the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre.) Besides aero-medicine the company is also targeting the passenger charter and urban air mobility markets, with an estimated addressable market of $6.5bn for the three combined.

Vertiia is an eight motor/propeller craft, with a design inspired by Lawrence Hargrave’s 1890s box kite. According to AMSL, its range is 250km (possibly 800km using a hydrogen fuel cell), and cruising speed is 300km per hour. Being able to lift off and descend vertically means it doesn’t need a runway.

The novelty of Vertiia is the combination of its box wing design, with energy storage in its wingtips, says Moore.

“It means that we can tolerate and manage the hazards associated with batteries, and energy storage generally, in a slightly different way to those concepts which store their batteries in or around the passenger cabin,” he explains, adding that it allows a decrease in the weight of the wings and the drag of the system.

According to Moore, the flying car genre is being enabled by improvements in battery technology, power and torque density in electric motors, and the affordability of flight control systems. Better applications of carbon-fibre composites are also aiding progress. CST Composites is a manufacturing partner. Another factor is the “adoption of performance-based certification standards”, enabling new aircraft to be built – though none have been certified yet.

Moore’s team currently numbers 15 full-time staff, with perhaps five or so full-time equivalents if you include contractors. The road ahead includes more ground testing; flight testing, with continued development of flight control software; further capital raising; and redeveloping the prototype into a production model. Having a production system established (and building to a production standard) is necessary to complete certification, planned for 2023.

Flight testing is quite high-risk by its nature, exploring all the corners of a safe flight envelope.

“You do end up getting very close to the edge of where you can safely operate,” Moore explains. “That’s just so that when you sell a product, you know exactly where it is safe to operate so you don’t operate near any of those dangerous corners.”

This is a real challenge, says Moore, and there are “gaps in policy”, but it is surmountable. The company is working closely with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) on it.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is gearing up to produce in large volumes, or “building the machine that builds the machine,” as Moore describes it. The anticipated market is large, and satisfying it won’t be a trivial undertaking .

“You can very easily build small production runs of aircraft,” Moore adds. “The challenge is actually establishing a production system that outputs a fairly high rate for airplanes.”

Eyre to There: Targeting the training sector

When we spoke to Barrie Rogers, Managing Director of Eyre to There Aviation, in mid-December, he outlined his company’s plans for a record-breaking electrified flight early in the new year: a 1,650km trip within South Australia in his company’s Pipistrel Alpha Electro. The aircraft’s range is 145km, meaning numerous stops to recharge.

“I guess the trip [purpose] is two-fold,” he says. “We’re going to generate a huge amount of awareness nationally. And we’re also backing that up by scoping out regional airports around the state at the moment for the future introduction of electric aircraft charging stations.”

Eyre to There began last year with big plans, but like the rest of us, the Adelaide-based startup soon found itself having had to change course. In February 2020 it announced an agreement with Slovenia-based Pipistrel to import and assemble Alpha Electro planes, a two-seat electric trainer , with the first 15 built overseas and the rest in Australia.

Rogers anticipates big demand from flight schools for new training aircraft. There are more than 3,400 aircraft at the country’s 250-plus schools, with an average age of 36 years for single-engine planes, meaning a lot of replacements will be needed soon.

“The agreement calls for approximately 255 electric aircraft in the Australian market over a seven-year period from the point of commencement of assembly,” Rogers says. “That’s not even 5% of the aircraft flight training market.”

Rogers has had a varied career, with his interest in aviation piqued during a period owning and operating a Robinson helicopter franchise in the US for six years during the 1990s. He has managed airports in SA since 2013 – most recently Parafield – before quitting in 2019 to start his new venture.

“We’re trying to have a community and an airport coexistent, and of course [there’s] a lot of noise complaints in that urban environment,” he explains.

He met Pipistrel at Germany’s Aero Friedrichshafen show and soon after agreed to build their planes here as a way to help bring in an era of quieter, cheaper, air transport.

Today, the five-person venture’s manufacturing plans are slightly different; Rogers says he is exploring partnerships with Adelaide OEMs (the automotive industry is mentioned) on new product lines. A more distributed model for assembling the Alpha Electros is also a possibility , and being closer to the customer makes sense.

“We get the container there and get people trained and they put it together and put it on a truck, get into an airport, and put the wings on,” he says of partnering with a distributed network of assemblers.

Rogers sees good potential for the country’s manufacturers in electrified air mobility.

“We as a country have amazing talent in the aerospace industry. We’ve never really been a mass manufacturer of aircraft. We leave that to the big guys.”

Rogers offers a local example: “You’ve got Airspeed in Adelaide, they’re certainly going places in manned drones, from a racing point of view. Their philosophy is that racing ultimately moved the car industry forward, and I think racing aircraft with new technology or propulsion systems will do the same thing.”

Orbital UAV: Hybrid propulsion for drones

Back in 1972, before ABC was running The New Inventors, it was running a program simply called The Inventors. The overall winner that year was Ralph Sarich, an automotive engineer with a new orbital engine. Despite much hype and a company with a market cap over $1bn at one point, Sarich Technologies – which would later become Orbital Corporation Ltd – never got into volume manufacturing of the invention, with the focus switching to direct fuel injection technologies in 1983. Sarich sold out of the company and became an ultra-successful property investor.

Four years ago, new management at Orbital switched the focus to propulsion systems and flight-critical components for tactical drones. Since then, Orbital UAV has moved from a team of clever engineers who can solve problems “to an advanced aerospace manufacturing company”, says Ian Donabie, the company’s Corporate Communications Manager.

Headcount at the firm’s long-time headquarters in Balcatta, Perth, is approximately 85, with a US team of around 15 based at Hood River, Oregon. Donabie says the growing Australian operation is 40% engineering, 45% production and operations, and the rest in executive or other business roles.

One of Orbital’s advantages stems from its history in fuel injection, says Donabie. Its FlexDI method is agnostic as to fuel type (gasoline, JP5, JP8 or Jet A); it atomises fuel into droplets of 8 microns and injects into the combustion chamber, greatly boosting heavy fuels and making them suitable for two-stroke UAV engines.

Donabie discusses the use of heavy fuels by defence clients : “There’s safety implications. These fuels won’t burn at a certain temperature. Unlike gasoline, which is highly flammable, these have a [safer] combustion point.

“The other part is logistics. Essentially the defence forces want all of their equipment on their compounds or wherever they may be, to run off the same fuel. So they don’t have to chop and change fuel types.”

Donabie says the company’s competitiveness is the result of engineering expertise, supply chain knowledge, and a deep background of dealing with Tier 1 companies in the automotive sector. A further legacy from its automotive history is a machine shop able to handle both development work and low-volume production.

“There’s a significant facility with significant capex put into it, and so we do have the necessary machinery and equipment to allow us to do quite complex work here and further expand,” he adds.

A new chapter in the company’s development began in April 2020, with selection by Northrop Grumman for the development of two prototype hybrid-propulsion systems, to be delivered in 2021.

Electric power enables the necessary torque to take off and land vertically, the company says, and represents new ground for the Orbital team. The battery is switched off once the UAV has taken off, after which point heavy fuel is used to power the vehicle in flight.

Increased investment by the Federal Government in ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), amounting to 9% of defence spending up to 2025-26, represents a good opportunity for Orbital. Two programs in particular are targets: LAND 129 and SEA 129, intended to provide engines for the successful lead company. Orbital is currently a supplier for both Insitu Pacific and Textron Systems Australia, two of the shortlisted companies for LAND 129 Phase 3.

As for the future of tactical drones, Donabie believes that they will rely on conventional fuel for some time to come. While battery power helps increase payload capability in a hybrid system, it would not provide adequate range if used on its own.

“In the tactical space, which is a very particular category of drone, there has been a requirement for a certain level of endurance, which can’t be matched by battery power or other power sources such as solar or hydrogen,” he explains. “So the combustion engine is still key to providing the capability that these tactical UAV drones require.

A tactical drone might be in the air for the best part of a day: maybe two to three hours either way to a site and maybe eight hours of monitoring.

“Batteries don’t provide that level of endurance,” he adds. “But certainly we are monitoring the progress of the battery industry and how those things are progressing. With the hybrid aspect of the Northrop Grumman contract, obviously, it’s of relevance.”