FARNBOROUGH, England — Electric aircraft concepts are everywhere at the Farnborough Air Show this year, often merely mock-ups of early prototypes developed by startups.
Lee Human is here to drum up business from such innovative projects for his Seattle aerospace engineering company, AeroTEC.
While neither Airbus nor Boeing will be launching an all-new airplane for some years, multiple well-funded startups are trying to create small electric aircraft to decarbonize flight. Though many will fail, in the meantime they’ve created exciting, challenging work for aerospace engineers in Seattle.
“It’s an incredible time to be in aerospace,” said Human. “We haven’t had new propulsion systems available to us since the invention of the jet engine.”
He already has four electric aircraft projects in the works that AeroTEC is steering closer to reality. Soon, some will actually fly at Moses Lake in Central Washington, which has become a proving ground for new propulsion airplanes.
- Eviation’s all-new design Alice airplane is at AeroTEC’s facility in Moses Lake and its delayed first flight is likely to take place later this summer.
- A technology demonstrator for Universal Hydrogen is there, too, a de Havilland Dash 8-300 turboprop that AeroTEC is modifying and plans to fly later this year.
- AeroTEC is also working with NASA on a hybrid electric airplane demonstrator, this one a modified de Havilland Dash 7 that should fly in 2024.
- And AeroTEC is helping Los Angeles-based electric aviation company Surf Air Mobility develop and certify hybrid electric and full-electric propulsion systems for Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft.
Human said at Farnborough he has met with “three new companies that are doing electric fixed-wing aircraft that we might be able to work with.”
“I’ve had several other meaningful meetings with other companies that are developing either upgrades to existing aircraft or brand-new aircraft,” he added.
Human founded AeroTEC in 2001. From its Seattle engineering office and its Moses Lake flight test center, it provides flight testing, data analysis, and Federal Aviation Administration certification services for aircraft manufacturers and modifiers.
It had about 250 employees before the pandemic, dropped down to about 170, and is now back to about 220 employees and hiring.
About 160 of those are engineers and corporate support in Seattle. About 40 mechanics and technicians along with some engineers are at Moses Lake. AeroTEC also has a small manufacturing facility in Arlington and a new engineering office in Wichita, Kansas.
Working on innovative aircraft is not a surefire business.
Two previous major projects AeroTEC worked on collapsed: the Mitsubishi regional jet and the Aerion supersonic business jet.
Human said he hedges against such setbacks and reduces costs by subcontracting work to offshore engineering teams.
At Farnborough he met with the CEO of Tucana, an engineering firm in Ukraine forced to relocate to Armenia after the Russian invasion began.
“We do the architecture and set up the fundamental design, and they do what we call commodity engineering,” he said. “They’ll take our models and do detailed drawings. They’re incredibly impressive.”
On the current projects, AeroTEC has worked with Eviation since the first version of Alice, now developed into a sleek, battery-powered plane that can carry nine passengers and two crew.
“We finalized the design work a year ago,” Human said. “We’re now reengaged to provide additional support to get ready for first flight.”
That flight had been expected last year, but has been repeatedly delayed.
“There’s a lot of new technologies being applied to the aircraft. And yeah, there’s been some serious teething pains in integrating these technologies to make them work,” said Human. “The Eviation team has done a really good job. The aircraft will fly when it’s safe.”
For Universal Hydrogen, the Dash 8 will be retrofitted with hydrogen tanks feeding into a hydrogen fuel cell that provides electricity to an electric motor designed and built by MagniX of Everett.
One engine will run on the hydrogen, the other on regular aviation gas.
AeroTEC has “basically completed final design and is now in the manufacturing and modification phase of the project,” Human said.
In the collaboration with NASA, the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration Project, MagniX will provide the motors while AeroTEC will integrate those motors with the Dash 7 airframe.
“This project is for learning,” said Human. “We’ll do operational missions with the aircraft to gain experience with a large-scale hybrid electric airplane.”
Finally, with Surf Air Mobility, MagniX will again provide the electric motors and AeroTEC will integrate those with the Grand Caravan airframe and get it certified to fly passengers.
Aiming to enter service in 2025, it could potentially become the first fully certified electric airplane.