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Electric Planes (Not The Engines!) Are Set To Take Off

From brakes to wings to undercarriages, the race is on to electrify planes - to make them lighter and more environmentally friendly.

Boeing 787 (flickr)

Even if electric motors won't be taking over jet engines anytime soon, recent technological innovations could have huge ramifications for the entire aeronautical industry. And the recent bid by French giant Safran for equipment supplier Zodiac offers some hard proof.

For the state-owned Safran group, the moment to act is now: the first planes using 100% electricity for on-board systems will be flying by the end of this decade, according to the group's CEO, Jean- Paul Herteman. "It is inevitable," he says. France's No. 1 aeronautical company is so convinced by the technology, that it has invested 300 million euros through 2012 in companies like its subsidiary Hispano-Suiza, setting up extensive test facilities at their headquarters just outside Paris.

Although engines will always need fuel, all other plane equipments could soon be running on electricity, no longer requiring the hydraulic or pneumatic power that dominates today. The advantages of using electrical systems are clear: less power taken from the engine, lighter cables and an energy source that can be used only when required. "It could amount to a 3% to 5% saving on fuel consumption", according to Jean-Pierre Cojan, Safran's executive vice-president of strategy and development.

This translates into significant reductions in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions over a plane's lifetime, as well as hundreds of hours saved in maintenance.

Innovation set to conquer

Airbus has led the way, being the first to use an electrical system for its nacelles and thrust reversers in the A380. Boeing went one step further with its 787, regarded as the most cutting edge ‘electric" passenger jet to date, delivering three electrical innovations: brakes, cabin pressurization and a wing de-icing system. They topped this off by tripling its electrical power to 1.4 megawatts.

The next phase? Flight controls - rudders and wingflaps – and above all, undercarriage systems, the retraction of which requires large amounts of power. "It is one of the last holy grails for the technology," Jean-Pierre Cojan explains. "Once we have solved the undercarriage problem, we will no longer need on-board hydraulic systems."

With every innovation come necessary imporvements. The future electrical wiring of an airliner will need to supply several different systems, all with specific requirements in power, voltage and frequency. The most critical of these, such as an undercarriage, will have huge demands on the electrical system, albeit for just seconds, whereas seat lights function throughout a whole flight with just minimal electric demand.

The solution? According to Safran, it's putting electronic systems in the electrical control panels, even if issues of thermal management and cooling still need to be solved. An A320 releases 150 kilowatts. With a 100% electric plane, you'd be talking one megawatt. Enough to run a small village! How you can concentrate this kind of power in a plane's silicon components is still not clear. "When you raise the voltage, it all gets much harder and you are challenging how things will be able to work," says Yannick Assouad, managing director of Zodiac Aerospace's aircraft systems' department. The electrical fire on board a 787 test-flight last November serves a as reminder that work still needs to be done.

If a fully electric airliner is at the heart of both their plans for the future, Airbus and Boeing are going about it in different ways. After having led the field with A380, Airbus allowed Boeing to surge ahead with the 787. This was a good reason to keep the bar high with their new model, the A350, and contrary to its American competitor, this future long-haul twin-jet-engined aircraft won't have electric breaks or electrically powered air-conditioning. The architecture of its electrical system will be very different than that of the A380, demonstrating that in matters of aeronautic design, caution often prevails over innovation, especially when you have already notched up big delays on earlier projects.

A new challenge

Convinced that a technical revolution was underway, Safran quickly drew strategic conclusions: among 1st division aeronautical equipment suppliers - those who sell directly to Airbus and Boeing - only those who could design and master integral electrical systems would survive. For the rest, it would be an automatic relegation to the second league. Clearly its about technology, but there are also financial implications. If it loses its business with airplane manufacturers, the French group will have to sell its brakes, undercarriages and thrust reversers at a lower price and have to forego lucrative and regular revenue from maintenance contracts.

None of the players involved can afford to ignore the electric plane market, already worth some 3 to 4 billion dollars a year. As early as 2015 key actors will have to be in place. And given the amount of investment required, there will only be a chosen few. "Three at the very maximum," according to Jean-Paul Herteman. And of these three, two American companies are already out in front: Honeywell and Hamilton Sunstrand. If Europe doesn't play as a united team, it will lose the war of electric planes to the United States. In light of this, plans to partner up with Zodiac Aerospace would have allowed it to marry up its power electronics arm, Safran Power, with ECE's distribution knowledge. By adding Auxilec - the subsidiary of Thales and a leading generating equipment manufacturers - as a third partner to the marriage, a European champion would have been born. But they hadn't anticipated Zodiac's desire to remain independent.

Now that the threat of a hostile takeover bid is receding, Zodiac has become more open to technical collaboration opportunities. But here again, this may not mean progress if the interested party is not convinced that the future will be as Safran currently sees it. "If I wanted to enter into the electric plane market, then I would focus all my energy on that," explains Olivier Zarrouati, chairman of Zodiac Aerospace's executive board. But if you already have a presence in this area, as does Zodiac, it is better to work on exploring all the primary technologies, in order to respond to any expectations an airplane manufacturer might have." If the electric technology is as ripe as it appears, Zodiac may wind up an indispensable player in the industry.

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