A modified Cessna Caravan prop plane that typically seats nine passengers flew Thursday for the first time powered not by a gas-powered turbine engine, but by electricity.
Two Seattle-area aviation companies were behind the airplane’s 30-minute-long, all-electric first flight at Moses Lake. MagniX, a startup based in Redmond, designed the light electric motor. AeroTEC, a Seattle-based aerospace engineering and certification company, modified the airplane.
The flight does not herald the near-term introduction of all-electric, passenger-carrying Cessnas. The cabin of the plane was obstructed by two tons of lithium-ion batteries and cooling equipment, with little room for passengers. It certainly wasn’t a cabin setup that would make any sense commercially.
“Yeah, I couldn’t fit a person in that aircraft. There was not even an attempt to put the batteries in a more convenient place,” said MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski. “This specific eCaravan was designed as a flying test bed.”
The flight proves a plane this size can be powered by an electric motor.
It’s a step toward MagniX’s future vision of all-electric, zero-emission flights becoming the norm on a range of small commuter aircraft.
Rather than wait for some futuristic vertical takeoff air taxis other startups are proposing, Ganzarski envisions retrofitting MagniX’s electric system on existing small fixed-wing planes to replace their gas-powered propulsion systems.
The target market is planes that fly regional routes out of smaller airports, carrying 5 to 12 people distances from 50 to 500 miles.
The Moses Lake flight follows a similar first flight in Vancouver, B.C., last December of a modified de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver seaplane powered by the same MagniX 750-horsepower motor.
Because these and similarly sized airplanes are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for commercial flights, getting a modified e-plane model certified should be faster than certifying some all-new electric airplane design.
Yet progressing from these first experimental flights to a viable electric-powered passenger service depends first on developing smaller batteries.
Ganzarski is confident technology is advancing toward batteries light enough and powerful enough for his needs. Indeed, he said the batteries on the Caravan were ordered some time ago, and already the latest state-of-the-art batteries are half the weight of those currently installed.
While he waits for the battery revolution to catch up, he’ll conduct ongoing flight tests with both the eCaravan and the eBeaver to certify every element of the technology, including MagniX’s propulsion system, the battery and cooling system, the power control system, and all the necessary modifications AeroTEC had to make to the plane’s flight systems.
AeroTEC handled the integration of the new propulsion system with the Cessna airframe and changes such as a battery charge indication on the instrument panel that is needed instead of the standard fuel gauge.
All of these modifications must be tested and certified for the high levels of safety, reliability and redundancy required for any airplane.
“What we are testing here is the entire electric aircraft,” Ganzarski said.
He said he expects certification for his propulsion system by the end of next year, which he believes could lead to the eBeaver and the eCaravan each being certified to operate commercially as soon as 2022.
MagniX has about 60 employees, about half in Australia, where the company started in 2009, and half in Washington state. Ganzarski declined to provide the total investment it has pumped into its electric flight project, but conceded it is “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The company has deep pockets to fund this expensive, yearslong project. It is owned by Richard Chandler, a New Zealand-born billionaire whose Singapore-based Clermont investment group focuses on health care, financial services and aerospace companies.
Clermont is also funding the all-new Alice electric plane being developed by Israeli company Eviation. That project also plans its first flight tests next year at Moses Lake.
Ganzarski said Washington state can become “a hotbed and center of excellence” for electric aviation. “We have everything we need to be the leaders in this industry,” he said.