Pioneering the aviation industry's journey towards decarbonisation, Rolls Royce has successfully tested the world’s first all-electric airplane; dubbed the Spirit of Innovation, the turpo-prop has completed its first test flight supplied with a 400 kW (500hp) electric powertrain, and what Rolls Royce has claimed the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft.
The experiment was performed as part of the Accelerating the Electrification of Flight (ACCEL) programme, involving key electric motor and controller producer YASA, along with the aviation start-up Electroflight.
The 15 minute test-flight was conducted at the UK Ministry of Defence’s Boscombe Down site. Now managed by private defence firm QinetiQ, the Wiltshire premises has long been the mecca of experimental flights and will be used to continue the Spirit of Innovation’s intensive testing phase in which the aircraft’s performance will be heavily evaluated, reviewing performance data of its electrical power and propulsion system.
Warren East, CEO of Rolls-Royce said in a press release “The first flight of the ‘Spirit of Innovation’ is a great achievement for the ACCEL team and Rolls-Royce. We are focused on producing the technology breakthroughs society needs to decarbonise transport across air, land and sea, and capture the economic opportunity of the transition to net zero. This is not only about breaking a world record; the advanced battery and propulsion technology developed for this programme has exciting applications for the Urban Air Mobility market and can help make ‘jet zero’ a reality.”
Funding for the project was distributed between the UK’s Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK. In addition half of the cost was provided by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), a leading British collective that allocates a budget of $5.2 billion to aviation research and development projects.
“The first flight of the Spirit of Innovation demonstrates how innovative technology can provide solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges,” said Gary Elliott, ATI CEO, “the ATI is funding projects like ACCEL to help UK develop new capabilities and secure a lead in the technologies that will decarbonise aviation. We congratulate everyone who has worked on the ACCEL project to make the first flight a reality and look forward to the world speed record attempt which will capture the imagination of the public in the year that the UK hosts Conference Of Parties 26 (COP26).”
Rolls Royce Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteonng commented in the same press release “The first flight of Rolls-Royce’s revolutionary Spirit of Innovation aircraft signals a huge step forward in the global transition to cleaner forms of flight. This achievement, and the records we hope will follow, shows the UK remains right at the forefront of aerospace innovation. By backing projects like this one, the Government is helping to drive forward the boundary pushing technologies that will leverage investment and unlock the cleaner, greener aircraft required to end our contribution to climate change.”
Rolls Royce has revealed that the technology unveiled from the ACCEL project is geared towards providing customers with a unified electric propulsion system be it for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) or commuter aircraft. The technology will be particularly applicable in the emerging field of air taxis, which will integrate similar batteries that allow the Spirit of Innovation to reach record breaking speeds exceeding 480km/h.
In addition, Rolls-Royce and airframer Tecnam are currently in collaboration with Widerøe, the largest regional airline in Scandinavia with plans to deliver an all-electric passenger aircraft for the international market by 2026.
The biggest limiting factor in electric power is the size and mass of current batteries. The reason that electric powered jet engines remain decades away is simple due to the fact that the average commercial aircraft would require over 544,000kg worth of batteries. That would need an extra eight jet planes to carry the weight!
That said with the aviation industry responsible for 2% of human-induced CO2 emissions, initiatives like The Spirit of Innovation are well placed to revamp the world’s transport capabilities; entering the new era of electric power, the world will witness a renaissance in transportation and eliminate the ecological burden of fossil-fuels.
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