Pioneering electric plane needs US$200m for final push

[LONDON] A passenger plane in the running to become the aviation industry's first fully commercial battery-powered model needs about US$200 million to bring it to market, according to developer Eviation Aircraft Ltd.

The Israeli company plans to fly a prototype of the "Alice" design at the Paris Air Show in June and to begin building the first production version in the next 2 1/2 years, Chief Executive Officer Omer Bar-Yohay said in an interview. It should sell for US$3 million to US$5 million.

While the plane is one of several electric models at the design stage, its nine-passenger capacity and 650-mile range from a single charge could give it an edge in the commuter market currently served by a variety of light aircraft. Many other proposed craft are smaller, reflecting the limiting weight of batteries and fuel cells, while full-size airliners may take years to develop.

Running costs for the Alice will be about US$200 per flight hour versus US$1,000 for a turboprop, presenting a "compelling business case," Bar-Yohay said, adding that it already has "a few hard commitments" from would-be operators. Existing funds should take the project to the prototype stage "and a bit further," but won't by themselves bankroll manufacturing, he said.

The Alice will be slower than some conventional craft, with a cruising speed of 240 knots  half the pace of modern business jets but not far short of some turboprop models. That's fast enough to reach Martha's Vineyard from Boston in about 20 minutes compared with 2.5 hours by car.

The plane's range would be less than that of the Cessna Caravan, a similarly sized light turboprop model that's popular in the US commuter market, but not drastically so.

About 65 per cent of the Alice's weight would come from lithium ion batteries sourced from South Korea's Kokam Co., which will drive electrical propulsion units most likely sourced from Siemens AG.

"Flying shorter distances and flying slower than you would in a commercial jetliner, the battery energy density of today is good enough," Mr Bar-Yohay said.

Based in Kadima, near Tel Aviv, Eviation was founded in 2015 by a team of aviation and technology specialists with backgrounds ranging from battery-systems start-up Phinergy Ltd to the Israel Defense Forces, with which Mr Bar-Yohay served as a major until 2008. The company, which reported accumulated losses of $68 million through 2017, has so far been funded by small investors and Israeli government grants.

Right now, the CEO says, Eviation is ahead of the pack - but "not by much." Roland Berger reckons there are 100 different electric-aircraft programs in development worldwide, up 30 per cent since 2017.

Zunum Aero, backed by Boeing Co and JetBlue Airways Corp, aims to bring a hybrid-electric commuter model to market by 2022, while MagniX Technologies Pty Ltd. is developing a battery-only plane with a similar date in mind. In September it announced a successful ground test of a 350-horsepower motor attached to the nose section of a Cessna test rig.

Joby Aviation Inc is aiming smaller, targeting the air-taxi market with a plane that would carry four passengers, travel 150 miles and fly at a few thousand feet, so that unlike the Alice it wouldn't be pressurized. Uber Technologies Inc has said it's also working on a flying taxi as an extension of its ridesharing product that would take off and land vertically and reach the market by 2023.

At the other end of the scale, Easyjet Plc has partnered with US-based Wright Electric with the aim of developing a full-size battery-powered airliner within a decade for flights of less than two hours, enough to link London with Paris or Amsterdam.

Siemens, Airbus SE and Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc are meanwhile working on a hybrid-electric propulsion system, the E-Fan X, that would also power a relatively large aircraft. Roland Berger predicts that the first 50-seat hybrid airliner will enter fare-paying service by 2032.


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