Safran and aviation's electric future
Electric aircraft propulsion
Powering the next chapter of aviation history
The near-term objective is to test and refine these technologies so that we're ready in the longer term to deliver dependable, versatile, high-performance solutions for any type of commercial aircraft.
While the increasing electrification of non-propulsive functions has driven the evolution of airplanes and helicopters over the last few decades, the electrification of propulsion systems promises a revolution: a radically new way to design aircraft, including aerodynamics and even operating modes. The innovation and research projects being conducted in electric propulsion herald a fundamental shift in the aerospace landscape in the decades ahead, including much greater diversity in what flying machines will look like and how they'll be used. This diversity will be largely determined by the extent to which electricity is the primary source of propulsive power. Some aircraft will use micro or mild hybridization: a combination of current combustion engines with small, smart electric motors, like the start-stop systems now common in automobiles. A similar system has been developed by Safran for the Airbus Helicopters Racer high-speed rotary-wing demonstrator. This technology allows the pilot to shut down one of the two engines during the cruise phases. Then, whenever necessary — when landing, for example, or if the pilot needs to gain airspeed or perform an emergency maneuver — the engine is restarted at full power by an electric motor. Full hybridization will involve developing more powerful thermoelectric systems that will directly provide lift and forward thrust for the aircraft, as well as power its non-propulsive functions. The final destination will be all-electric propulsion, where conventional combustion engines will be completely superseded by a purely electric power source.
A growing number of projects exploring the many possibilities are being conducted around the world, led by established industry players and startups alike. Amid the profusion of announcements and claims - some as speculative as they are spectacular - Safran is pursuing a pragmatic approach to innovation. The company is developing and offering new needs-responsive solutions, from electrification of conventional aircraft to propulsion systems for new platform concepts, such as vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOL).
Why the shift to electric propulsion?
Full or partial electric propulsion offers significant benefits:
- Enhanced performance - Huge technological progress has been made with latest-generation combustion engines, and further advances are possible by optimizing architectures, materials and coatings to boost performance. Hybrid layouts are another way to reduce weight, fuel burn and environmental impact, especially by avoiding the need to design the main combustion engine to meet maximum power requirements for example at takeoff.
- More reliable operation - More-electric architectures are more robust and require less maintenance. Smart electronic management makes them potentially more compatible with new digital technologies, allowing data to be collected and analyzed for greater automation, optimized flight and better failure prediction and management.
- New markets - By increasing the number of electric motors, certain architectures such as multi-rotor VTOLs are inherently much safer and could open up a host of new uses in urban and suburban areas, as well as bringing this kind of flying to many more people, thanks to manually-assisted or fully-automated operation.
Electric propulsion applications
Safran is developing electric propulsion technologies for numerous platform types - some of which herald a whole new approach to civil aviation. Using the same technological building blocks, the company is positioned to address wide-ranging needs and markets.
Air taxis : The age-old dream of the flying car is now within reach! Multi-rotor VTOLs able to carry four passengers could become a reality in the next few years, with numerous projects already in progress worldwide. Safran is involved in some initiatives that are already at an advanced stage, like the Bell Nexus. While it's hard to imagine these aircraft becoming as popular as automobiles, they could serve as a viable alternative in certain areas - like air taxis in and around our congested cities, or air ambulance/medevac platforms, taking advantage of their speed, reliability and quieter operation. For the same reasons, the defense community is also taking an interest for logistics or special missions.
Cargo Drones : Electric VTOLs could be used for short-distance parcel delivery. Current prototypes are already carrying payloads of several dozen kilograms. They could help delivery companies solve the logistics problem of the "last 10 miles", which is particularly inefficient due to growing congestion and increasingly restrictive CO2 and particle emissions standards in our cities. These uses are especially promising since they could be coupled with autopilot or remote-controlled solutions, more readily accepted in the passenger transport market. With current technologies, an all-electric architecture wouldn't be capable of carrying cargo over long distances. However, the concept could be used with a hybrid architecture, giving it substantially greater power and range.
Commuter aircraft : Safran is also interested in another application: small commuter aircraft in the 10-passenger class. Hybrid propulsion architectures could make these planes a competitive proposition for regular routes of a few hundred miles in certain parts of the world. The United States, for example, has more airports than any other country, yet an estimated 80% of them are underused or unused due to the difficulty of operating conventional airplanes profitably over short distances, and especially the overly restrictive noise regulations at these local airfields. While all electric propulsion is unrealistic in the near term, a variety of hybrid designs are entirely conceivable.