Kirkland-based Zunum Aero aims to have its first hybrid-electric commuter airplane in flight tests within two years, though many technological details remain to be worked out.
Zunum Aero, a local startup that’s won funding from both Boeing and the state of Washington, aims to begin small but grow fast. It says it will flight test its first nine-seat hybrid-electric plane just two years from now.
The company as yet has no hardware to show the world, only ambitious plans and alluring illustrations. It also has a Silicon Valley-style pitch.
At Zunum’s Kirkland headquarters, Chief Executive Ashish Kumar — a former Google and Microsoft senior executive with a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering — insists his small electric planes will open up aviation to more travelers.
Existing planes of this size, such as the Wichita-built Beechcraft King Air or the Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12, today are flown by city-to-city commuter airlines that typically serve lucrative short-hop routes — say San Francisco to Los Angeles — and by operators offering on-demand air-taxi service.
They serve mainly business executives who like to fly out of small airports to avoid the security and logistical delays of major commercial airline travel.
Kumar says Zunum’s battery-powered plane will open up this aviation sector by dramatically lowering the cost of operating such planes. He cites $250 per flight hour, compared with $600 to $1,000 and up per flight hour on similarly sized nonelectric planes.
“It will give rise to a much more distributed air system, where smaller to midsize planes fly to many more airports than have service today,” Kumar said.
A family of electric planes
Zunum won some credibility in April, when Boeing gave it an undisclosed amount of startup funding.
In June, the state of Washington’s Clean Energy Fund kicked in an additional $800,000 research-and-development grant.
The concept is a plane, mostly built of composites, with Tesla-style battery packs in the wings. As a hybrid, it will also carry a relatively small amount of fuel.
All the electric propulsion gear will be stored behind the passenger cabin and will power two engines mounted on the fuselage, just ahead of the V-shape tail.
Zunum promises a range of 700 miles and a cruise speed of 340 mph, which is 9 percent faster than the Pilatus and King Air planes.
The plane would theoretically seat up to a dozen people, but since Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules would require two pilots for 10 or more passengers, in practice, it’ll be a nine-seater in the U.S.
Zunum sees this as the first of a family of hybrid-electric planes. “In the grand scheme of things,” said Kumar, it’s “also a demonstrator for the 30- to 50-seater that we think is the next logical step.”
Not content with that ambition, Zunum says its planes will have the capability to be flown autonomously — without a pilot. And its presentations include concept illustrations of a vertical takeoff military model.
Tech-style startup mentality
Yet even the baseline technology is still in development.
A new generation of batteries is needed to power this plane. Kumar says Zunum will rely on the auto industry to come up with those.
His engineers are focusing on developing the powertrain that will drive the engines. As for the airframe, Zunum will get to the details on that later — next year, Kumar said.
Myriad regulatory hoops will have to be jumped through to achieve FAA certification. And while Kumar insists this can all be developed for “less than $200 million,” the business plan is sketchy.
With another round of fundraising ahead, Kumar looks past the challenges, presenting his case as if Zunum were a Silicon Valley tech startup.
He points out how much investor money is today being poured into innovation in ground transportation, from ride services to electric cars to autonomous vehicles, and says, “that money is now crossing over” into electric, short-range flying as the next big opportunity.
Yet it’s clear Zunum is still in the early planning phase.
The company has hired a few high-end propulsion experts and will set up a center near Chicago to start ground tests of the electrics and motors by next summer.
Around then, Kumar says, the company will also start wind-tunnel tests of a half-scale engine fan at Boeing Field.
He says Zunum will deliver its first four aircraft in 2022 and ramp up from there.
And where will they be built? Too early to discuss, Kumar says.
In March, longtime aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group wrote a piece dismissing the various sleek and sexy Silicon Valley-style projects aiming to transform aviation — from electric planes to urban air taxis.
He pointed out that electric airplanes specifically will require a completely new level of battery endurance and reliability compared to those powering cars, since an airplane can’t just pull over to the side of the road.
“We’re a long way from there,” Aboulafia wrote. “It may take many decades.”
Undeterred by such doubters, Zunum confidently predicts it will put electric planes into service five years from now.