Rolls-Royce’s Race to Develop the World’s Fastest All-Electric Aircraft
Inside a hangar bay at Gloucestershire airport in South West England, London-based Rolls-Royce plc has gathered a team of British engineers, designers, and data specialists and set them on a course to develop a new electric aircraft. The catch is that that zero-emission, all-electric aircraft must reach or exceed a target speed of 300 miles per hour (480 kilometers per hour) by 2020.
If the team can produce an electric aircraft that meets those numbers, they would set a world record for the fastest all-electric aircraft in history; the current record – 210 mph (337 kph) was set by an Extra 330LE aerobatic plane powered by a propulsion system developed by Munich-based Siemens AG . But to Rolls-Royce, the task is much more than a stunt. The project, called “Accelerating the Electrification of Flight” (ACCEL), is Rolls-Royce’s attempt at pioneering a “third wave of aviation” with the company positioned as a champion of aircraft electrification.
Moreover, the team plans to build, test, and commercialize the aircraft in a market that does not yet exist all within a 24-month span – a relative blink of the eye in the world of aircraft development. They will be using an agile approach with a unique collaborative model to test new ideas and work through energy storage and performance challenges at a rapid pace.
The ACCEL aircraft is a 23-foot long, single seat, single prop, low wing racing plane with a 24-foot wingspan. The cockpit is set back towards the end of the fuselage in order to accommodate a substantial battery pack in the nose. Physically, the ACCEL aircraft looks a bit like an English roadster.
“This plane will be powered by a state-of-the-art electrical system and the most powerful battery ever built for flight,” says Matheu Parr, ACCEL project manager. “In the year ahead, we’re going to demonstrate its abilities in demanding test environments before going for gold in 2020 from a landing strip on the Welsh coastline.”
Learn more: Fundamentals of Electric Aircraft
The 6,000-cell ACCEL battery pack is the most energy-dense battery pack ever developed for flight and provides – through a 90-percent efficient powertrain – 750 volts to three lightweight, high power YASA e-motors. The aircraft’s propeller will operate at lower number of revolutions per minute (RPM) than a conventionally powered aircraft; however, it will deliver a stable and relatively quiet 500 horsepower.
“We’re monitoring more than 20,000 data points per second, measuring battery voltage, temperature, and overall health of the powertrain, which is responsible for powering the propellers and generating thrust. We’ve already drawn a series of insights from the unique design and integration challenges,” says Parr. “And we’re gaining the knowhow to not only pioneer the field of electric-powered, zero-emissions aviation – but to lead it. At this point, our confidence is sky high.”
The Rolls-Royce team is focusing on keeping the battery as light as possible and developing an advanced cooling system to keep it stable during extreme temperatures and high-current operation. If all goes according to plan, it will provide enough to fly 200 miles (320 kilometers) on a single charge.
ACCEL is partly funded by the UK government and involves a host of partners including electric motor and controller manufacturer YASA, the aviation start-up Electroflight Ltd , and the Aerospace Technology Institute .
The team brings together some of the top minds from the world of Formula E racing to help design the e-racer.
William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.