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

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.

Read the original article in French

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!