The Future of Aircraft Electrification
A resounding applause fills an auditorium in Fort Worth, Texas, as engineers, researchers, and business leaders stand in unison to celebrate the closing keynote of another aerospace conference. Participants grab their belongings and file out into the street where they clamor for rides to the airport. I hail a cab and glance at my watch, noting that in 45 minutes, I’m expected at a meeting in Austin—about 200 miles away. Just then, a taxi pulls up to the curb. I step inside, and as soon the door closes, I’m up in the air. Fifteen minutes later, I land in Austin beside my car; I hop in and head to the meeting location. I arrive soon after, with time to spare.
Stories like this were used in the past to paint a futuristic picture of the transportation industry. Visionaries would share them to entice businesses to invest in new modes of travel that, at the time, seemed only possible in dreams.
Fast-forward to today, where technological breakthroughs are turning ideas like flying taxis into reality. Aviation, for example, is making tremendous strides toward cleaner, more efficient travel, from electrical vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL), to hybrid-aircraft electrification, and eventually, fully electric aircraft.
Despite these advancements, businesses are obligated to make decisions that are rooted in safety, consistency, and scalability. So how can engineers and the organizations they represent aim higher and take chances while remaining grounded and practical? Let’s explore three areas where test is driving responsible innovation.
eVTOL and the Flying Taxi
Advancements in electric and autonomous vehicles have sparked renewed excitement about the integration of battery power in aviation. Start-ups from Silicon Valley and elsewhere are partnering with key players from aerospace and transportation, like Toyota, Airbus, and Uber, to spearhead such efforts. Take, for example, the electric prototype from Intel and Germany-based Lilium Aviation that’s already accumulated 1,000 test flights.
By 2040, the eVTOL and air taxi market is forecasted to be worth $1.5 trillion, and commercial integration may begin as soon as 2022. But as the race to dominate this market spurs opportunities, businesses cannot compromise on safety and pragmatism; rather, they must continue to approach designs responsibly. Air taxis pose significant risks to passengers and other aircraft; their subsystems could malfunction, and they could be vulnerable to cyberattacks. To mitigate potential flaws such as these, rigorous testing is required. The same level of testing is also required for energy management, distribution, and generation subsystems, without bringing innovation to a halt.
As companies move from prototype to production, they must receive safety and reliability certifications through validation. It’s at this stage where PCBs, wiring, and test systems that were used in early development may prove time consuming and costly to scale and maintain. To keep up with accelerating development schedules, businesses will require validation test systems that adapt with changes to sensors, loads, and simulations.
Hybrid Aircraft Takes Flight in 2020
Electrification has silently and gradually permeated the aircraft industry. Hydraulic and pneumatic systems are slowly transitioning to electric-based systems, enabling the creation of aircraft that are more efficient and, therefore, easier to maintain. That, coupled with a strong push to lower carbon emissions, is allowing hybrid-electric aircraft to take flight.
A lot has happened in the world of more electric aircraft (MEA) in 2020, including the announcement of two regional aircraft:
Wright 1, a partnership between Wright Electric and EasyJet, will begin flight tests in 2023.
HERA, from UK-based Electric Aviation Group, plans for planes to enter service in 2028.
In addition to that, 2020 marked the culmination of a three-year project between Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and Siemens: a hybrid-electric aircraft demonstrator called, E-Fan X. The 2MW electric engine of the E-Fan X was used to power onboard electrical subsystems and generate thrust for the aircraft. The test systems integrated throughout the aircraft provided critical insights into how it managed increased weight from the battery, thermal effects from energy dissipation and difference in power output from a static source. According to Airbus, this initiative is just the beginning. “We take great pride in knowing this first-of-its kind demonstrator [is] a real game changer for the aviation industry and a key step change in our ambition to help decarbonize aviation,” said a company spokesperson.
Projects like the E-Fan X yield a tremendous amount of data from test flights; the data that’s collected better informs simulation models for future embedded software test. As businesses continue to invest in these sorts of projects, they will need to test early and often without damaging hardware or compromising on safety.
NI’s hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) solutions enable customers to switch between these simulations and real hardware with the same test system, saving time during validation and facilitating reuse across a variety of test needs.
The Future of Fully Electric Aircraft
To make fully electric aircraft a reality and eventually commonplace requires advancements in battery technology and highly efficient electric converters. Fossil fuels currently provide 100 times as much energy as batteries do. Adding more batteries to aircrafts increases weight and the risk of chemical and fire hazards. Breakthroughs in energy storage and distribution are needed to address these challenges, yet some familiar names are undeterred:
Safran (France) and Boeing recently announced a joint venture to develop batteries for urban air mobility and electric aircraft projects.
GE Aviation and NASA have partnered to develop inverters for large commercial electric aircraft.
Both ventures must prove they can meet capacity and discharge needs. Moreover, businesses will need to develop and test, for example, the charge profile and the charge cycle of new batteries in addition to simulating batteries for electrical subsystems. Advancements in battery technology for the automotive space can serve as a foundation for work on fully electric aircraft. NI’s expertise across these two industries benefits both sets of customers.
The wave of electrification in the aircraft industry is generating opportunities to expand technology, increase mobility in dense communities, and produce cleaner, more sustainable modes of transportation. At the same time, this wave raises safety, reliability, and cost concerns at all stages that cannot be ignored. If we hope to one day commute on air taxis from city to city or significantly reduce our carbon footprint when we travel long distances by plane, one thing is clear—rigorous testing is needed to turn these dreams into reality.
This article was written by Luke Schreier, Vice President & General Manager, Aerospace/Defense/Government Business Unit, NI (Austin, TX). For more information, visit here .
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