Zunum Aero has secured serious investor interest for its regional hybrid-electric aeroplane concept, from JetBlue Technology Ventures and Boeing HorizonX.
The company will initially target routes of 700 miles, with the hope of developing its technology to cope with 1000+-mile flight ranges by 2030. Its aircraft will accommodate between 10 and 50 passengers, allowing them to travel via some of the 5,000 underused regional and general aviation airports in the US.
Zunum has not revealed many details, but has confirmed that the plane will have batteries mounted to its wings. The research, development, and design stages will be supported by Zunum’s long-term partnership with the Center for Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems (POETS).
POETS’ goal is to “increase the power density of current mobile electrified systems by 10-100 times over current state of the art systems” and the organisation is cultivating a relationship with the Federal Aircraft Association (FAA) in order to achieve operational standards for electric aircraft by 2018.
The start-up, founded in 2013 by mechanical and aerospace engineer Ashish Kumar, hopes that investment commitment will see its idea produce a prototype in approximately two years. Zunum’s concept is clearly exciting its partners. President of JetBlue Technology Ventures, Bonny Simi, has described the concept as “Tesla for the air.”
Such big claims mean that it isn’t surprising that the low-cost, high-quality airline has picked up the opportunity to get involved in a project which it expects to be both luxurious and innovative. The question left is exactly how much will the new technology-cum-luxury venture cost the consumer?
The answer is, perhaps, not that much. Kumar claims that Zunum’s electric hybrid propulsion technology can drive down the costs to airlines by up to 80%. This is primarily because it would allow airlines to make use of more short-haul routes (of fewer than 1,000 miles) without the need to connect through large airports. Kumar is confident in the future benefits of the technology, describing hybrid propulsion as “an industry-changing solution, enabling mid-sized aircraft on regional routes to have better cost efficiencies than airliners.”
The aircraft itself could offer further savings – Zunum estimates that its concept will deliver 80% lower emissions. This figure would then drop to zero as battery densities improve (a sound goal, but one that may be some way off yet). The project should also attract support from local communities, based close to airports, because the aircraft will produce up to 75% less noise.
The hope is that, once produced, the aircraft will allow its operating airlines to pass on savings of between 40 and 80% while opening up travel options to and from rural areas. Such positivity may also alleviate a bit of of pressure on rural airports, especially in countries like the US, where a cutback of subsidies may force many to close.
Neither is Zunum Aero alone. Wright Electric is planning to build electric planes capable of flying 150 passengers up to 300 miles. Again, that project has attracted attention from big investors, namely Airbus and EasyJet.
In terms of the evolution of zero-emission air travel, the participation of aviation’s big names also hopefully heralds a change for the better. However, ElecTrans remains sceptical that these technological gains can be made in the suggested timeline. Hybrid aircraft are doubtlessly just around the corner, but those awaiting fully electric passenger flight will have to sit tight for the long haul.