With all the fuss about the environmental impact of fuel-guzzling cars and trucks, it's easy to forget that modern light aircraft often still use leaded gasoline, and to top it off, they pump out CO2 as they buzz through the skies.
Electric propulsion seems ideally suited to aircraft, that can fly above clouds in the search for solar power, and where the lighter engineering offered by a compact motor and lack of fuel tank promises for a more efficient aircraft than is possible with a conventional gasoline engine. Even Boeing is taking the topic very seriously, and last year demonstrated the first flight in a hydrogen fuel cell-powered light aircraft. As well, Pipistrel has an electric self-launching motor-glider in production, the Taurus Electro, that is reportedly the first of its kind to market.
But why aren't there more hybrid or all-electric aircraft buzzing through the skies? You'd think the advantage of quieter flying and the climbing cost of aviation fuel would be tempting enough, (never mind the eco-benefits) in our increasingly noise-polluted and expensive world, to get both aircraft makers and carriers on board.
That's the sort of topic that will be raised at the upcoming Electric Aircraft Symposium due to kick off at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos starting April 24. It's an annual meeting run by the same group—The Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation—responsible for running NASA's Personal Air Vehicle/General Aviation Centennial Challenges, which are both schemes designed to promote development of aircraft.
And this year the CAFE Electric Aircraft meeting is going to concentrate on a million-dollar competition, in the same vein as the X-Prizes, that's intended to spur fuel-efficient aircraft engine design. In the competition, hybrid crafts will have to manage over 100 miles per gallon at over 100 mph. There will also be sessions on climate change, renewable energy in aircraft design, nanotube battery technology, and advanced electric motor design.
Electric air vehicles are clearly a hot topic this year, as the IEEE at its 35th Industrial Electronics Society meeting in Porto is also running a special session on "More Electrical Aircraft" in November.
For the time being electric-powered aircraft aren't likely to displace our fast, efficient but fuel-guzzling jets...but through the work of CAFE and the IEEE it looks like "personal transport" aircraft may make the switch to eco-friendly power sometime soon.