This electric aircraft could jump-start the future of flight
A Seattle company sends the largest zero-emissions airplane yet on its first flight.
Kent GermanFormer senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Magnix isn't trying to change
overnight; it just believes that any transformation has to begin somewhere. And Thursday morning, the Seattle-based manufacturer of electric motors nudged the future of air travel forward when it sent another airplane on a zero-emissions flight. If you missed it, you can relive the 30-minute flight over Moses Lake, Washington here.
"This first flight of the eCaravan is yet another step on the road to operating these middle-mile aircraft at a fraction of the cost, with zero emissions, from and to smaller airports," said Magnix CEO Roei Ganzarski. "These electric commercial aircraft will enable the offering of flying services of people and packages in a way previously not possible."
Unlike the experimental aircraft that have dominated electric flight so far, the Cessna Caravan 208 that carried Magnix's motor is a nine-passenger widely used commuter airliner that's been in production since 1982. The 37-foot-long Caravan is also the largest electric aircraft to fly so far. By retrofitting an existing 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.
Watch this: Pushing for the future of electric flight, one small plane at a time
"It's a niche market. But we can start now, get working on it and push the envelope to progress the entire industry," Ganzarski said. "Let's get to market quickly for the main purpose of being able to start this revolution."
The Magni500 motor powering the plane's single propellor delivers 750 horsepower, which Magnix says is enough propulsion for "middle mile aircraft" that can carry between five and 19 passengers. 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.
"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 is not 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.
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 No. 1 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.
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 TeslaSupercharger.)
"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.
"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."