By Nicolas Zart
Electric vehicles (EVs) are common these days in the news. Electric motorcycles have also popularized the concept of the electric drivetrain, and electric bicycles (e-bikes) are furiously changing the landscape. However, the last frontier is the air, as we covered with our Hamiton aEro story. Electric aircraft are taking off (pun intended), and the Kirkland, Washington–based company Zunum Aero promises a hybrid-electric airplane for ~50 passengers for regional hops.
Hybrid-Electric Airplane Zunum Aero Aims for Regional Flights
The Zunum website strikes a common wish for anyone who travels by air. Claiming to offer a “Fast, affordable and everywhere” solution, it asks: “What if you could get to places much faster than you can today? What if flying cost a lot less than it does today? If thousands of communities were connected by air service? What if aircraft were quieter, with far lower emissions?” Sounds familiar? This was supposed to be the idea when Boeing scratched its original models to compete “toe to toe” with the massive Airbus 380, by introducing the smaller and lighter 787 that would land at smaller airports. I rejoiced at the perspective and enjoyed my first flights. I’m less enthusiastic at the growing developments of that airplane. A smaller hybrid-electric airplane from Zunum Aero is my idea of convenience, in contrast to jumbo jets landing in a mega-airports.
Zunum Aero aims to make a $100 roundtrip flight between San Jose (California) and Pasadena (California) — about 350 miles. Although it might seem like a tall order, the industry and certainly weary airline passengers are more than ever demanding this instead of the cattle-herding endured with enormous and impersonal airports.
Bringing Back the Human Touch with The Hybrid-Electric Airplane Zunum Aero
What the electric airplane Zunum Aero promises is to re-humanize what has become today a chore, air travel. With 13,500 airports in its travel portfolio, it argues that 140 of the largest hubs carry over 97% of air traffic. A 50–100 passenger electric airplane could operate using smaller airports, be closer to destinations, and operate at a fraction of the maintenance cost compared to jet and propeller aircraft fleets.
At this stage, you might want to file the hybrid-electric airplane Zunum Aero as yet another hopeful startup. But let me bend your ear.
Hybrid-Electric Zunum Aero Backed by Giants
The people behind Zunum Aero are CEO Ashish Kumar, Ph.D., Matt Knapp, Zunum Aero’s Chief Engineer, who is also a certified flight instructor, Kiruba Haran, who is in charge of Advanced Drives, and Petek Saracoglu, a Flight Sciences Engineer. This dynamic team believes it has the solution to aviation industry woes.
Backed by Boeing’s HorizonX innovation cell and JetBlue Technology Ventures, Zunum Aero seems more credible than other startups. Currently, the hybrid-electric airplane Zunum Aero aims to offer 10 to 50 seats by the early 2020s. Its regional aircraft are intended to reach 700 miles, and up to 1,000 miles of range by 2030. The company wants to address the biggest problems associated with modern-day flying, decreasing door-to-door travel times, reducing operating costs, cutting emissions by 80%, and also cutting community noise 75% with its associated benefits. Those benefits include 40% less travel time on less-trafficked corridors and 40% to 80% cheaper fares. I don’t about you, but I’m certainly game if it can achieve this.
As far as its engineering capabilities, Zunum Aero has worked for some time with the Center for Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems, which is an NSF-sponsored research center from the University of Illinois. Also, the company has been working closely with the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) since 2014 and is now incremental to the certification standards for electric aircrafts expected to happen by 2018.
Hybrid-Electric Airplane Zunum Aero Technical Problems
Looking at the electric flight industry’s main obstacles, the biggest challenges are with fast charging and engines that can operate in the 20,000 to 30,000 feet flight ceiling. The other obvious problem is associated with demand and manufacturing costs, something Zunum Aero hasn’t revealed much about yet. The company says it is now in the build phase of its journey.
As far as competition, the hybrid-electric Zunum Aero airplane isn’t the only game in town. Keep our eyes on Google’s Moffett Field location. Another important hybrid-electric airplane adventure happening currently is the Aurora Project. Another private-sector startup is Zee, which is also developing its own electric air flight solution. Of course, not to be outdone is Airbus which launched its Airbus Group SE, which funded an initial $150 million commitment with a Silicon Valley center back in 2015. Since then, Airbus flew its E-Fan concept across the English Channel in 2015, which effectively became the first electric plane to do so.
The neon has never been any brighter on the wall. The electric propulsion is here to stay. While the hybrid-electric airplane Zunum Aero might not challenge quickly short-flight air commuters, it could disrupt buses, slow U.S. passenger trains, shared ride and taxi car services.