The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) granted this week an electric aircraft worldwide certification to operate, in what the regulator hailed as a massive step forward in battery-powered flight.
EASA announced on Wednesday (10 June) that it had completed its type-certification of the Pipistrel Velis Electro, a two-seater plane capable of up to 80 minutes of flight, built by an aerospace company headquartered in Slovenia.
The Pipistrel is powered by an electric motor fed by two battery packs and can carry up to 600kg. Recharge time varies between 40 to 70 minutes, making it well suited to its intended function as a training aircraft.
“This is the first step towards the commercial use of electric aircraft, which is needed to make emission-free aviation feasible. It is considerably quieter than other aeroplanes and produces no combustion gases at all,” said Pipistrel Aircraft CEO Ivo Boscarol.
“It confirms and provides optimism, also to other electric aircraft designers, that the Type Certificate of electric engines and aeroplanes is possible,” he said, adding that the engine is available to other aircraft builders, given that it was certified separately from the plane.
EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky hailed it as “an exciting breakthrough”, adding that the Pipistrel will be the first of many e-planes his agency will certify “as the industry pursues new technologies to reduce noise and emissions and to improve the sustainability of aviation.”
The agency was able to complete its work within three years thanks to close collaboration with the Slovenian company. EASA said the experience had improved its own understanding of how batteries and electrical systems work on board aircraft.
France’s government gave e-aviation a major boost earlier this week when it unveiled its €15 billion aerospace aid package, which includes a €1.5 billion research and development fund earmarked for developing new ways of fuelling aircraft.
According to the plan, France’s aerospace sector – which includes industry powerhouse Airbus – should work towards putting a zero-emission airliner into service by 2035, powered by hydrogen or more sustainable fuels.
It also sets a target of developing a regional aircraft that could be powered by electric-hybrid engines, which would be better suited to the shorter distances involved in short-haul journeys.
Airbus recently shelved a long-term project aimed at testing an e-hybrid jet next year, citing the economic slump provoked by the coronavirus crisis. Both Airbus and its partner in the project, engine-builder Rolls-Royce, have announced that big job losses are on the cards.
The drive to clean up aviation’s act is gaining momentum regardless. At the end of May, a nine-seater Cessna, fuelled purely by battery power, completed a 30-minute flight over the skies of Washington state.
In China, a flying-taxi drone was reportedly demonstrated for the first time. It can carry two passengers and travel at around 100km/h, also powered by batteries. It faces significant regulatory obstacles in Europe, as it is likely to be treated like a normal aircraft, making its use in urban areas potentially problematic.
European transport ministers also have aviation in their sights. Last week, six of them signed a joint letter urging the European Commission to draw up a framework for sustainable fuels that can be produced using renewable energy.
The price of producing such fuels is currently too high for airlines to consider using them, so it is likely that the market would need subsidies to get it moving. Although just six ministers signed up, they did include Germany, France and Spain, three of the EU’s biggest aviation players.