Eviation Aircraft, based in Washington state, moved the world closer to a more sustainable aviation future Sept. 27 by completing the first all-electric test flight of its uniquely named airplane, Alice.
With the world moving towards electrification, Eviation Aircraft is not the first company to dream of launching an electric aircraft. Icelandair Group recently flew an electric airplane, manufactured by Pipistrel, with the Iceland’s president and prime minister on board. Also, companies such as Airbus have been working on a hybrid-propulsion aircraft called the EcoPulse. Lastly, all-electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft grow in popularity each year at the CES conference in Las Vegas. Examples include Airbus’s CityAirBus and Joby Aviation, which acquired Uber Elevate in December 2020, offering a dream of electric air travel around major cities.
However, Alice is different. First, its name is unique in that it was supposedly inspired by "Alice in Wonderland" and the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit." I love that. Second, and more practical for the future of aviation, Alice is the world’s first all-electric passenger commuter aircraft, built entirely for electric propulsion, that can carry nine passengers and two crew members, with a targeted range of 150 to 250 nautical miles. I love that even more.
I caught up with Gregory Davis, Eviation Aircraft’s president and CEO, following the eight-minute long test flight. He kindly gave me a virtual tour of Alice. Still in a suit and tie after a hearing with the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Davis walked me through some of Alice's intricacies and the team's big hopes for the future. Sidenote: I have yet to speak to a more down-to-earth CEO, so props to Davis for being so friendly and willing to give me a last-minute tour.
With Alice sitting in the airplane hangar in Moses Lake, Washington, following its inaugural test flight, Davis opened the doors to unveil something he said that "people don’t get to see normally — a naked airplane." Alice was full of testing equipment, including a cooling system and a telemetry rack where information from all the sensors on the aircraft is collected, collated and transmitted to the telemetry room, which as he put it, "is like the mission control room for a space launch." Moving from the passenger compartment, Davis walked me through the pilot controls. "One of the interesting things about Alice is the center screen, which you will not see on any other [conventional aircraft], as it's entirely configured for the control of the aircraft, the energy storage system and the electric motors," he said.
Rendering of Alice’s inside once commercially ready — Nine passenger-seat version. (Source: Eviation Aircraft)
In the future for actual flights, Alice will be equipped with nine passenger seats. Eviation Aircraft is also working on two other versions, for cargo and executive air travel.
On the outside of Alice, you could never tell, but the battery compartment wraps around the body of the plane — 8,000 pounds of battery weight alone — almost half the airplane's maximum takeoff weight of 18,400 lbs. The production version will have 800-volt battery cassettes tailored to fit the belly of the airplane, taking up minimal volume, David explained. As for the electric motors themselves, something critical for all-electric transport, Alice is fitted with two magniX magni650 electric propulsion units.
While Eviaton Aircraft was successful in its first test flight, the journey ahead is just beginning for Alice to reach passenger travel. "We’ve actually generated, frankly, terabytes of data with the data acquisition systems that we had on the aircraft, so we’re going to take a couple of weeks actually and review it to see how the aircraft performs versus our models and our analysis," David told CNN. "From there, we'll understand what we need to do next."
However, it seems Alice will not hit the skies commercially until 2027, if everything goes according to plan. Yet companies such as DHL and GlobalX are already placing orders for Alice, expecting delivery by 2027. GlobalX plans to use the airplanes for passenger flights in Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Until then, Eviation Aircraft has to develop an FAA-certified aircraft through 2025, followed by a couple of years of flight testing.
"We’ve just proven — and really, it’s a proof of concept aircraft — that the whole thing works," Davis said. "The advantage of jet fuel is that it is about 19 times more energy dense than battery power. But the disadvantage is that it's very expensive in comparison to battery power, so we are going to save on operating economics and the energy costs, and those savings will eventually pass on to the customer."
However, in the hard-to-abate emissions sector of aviation, restrictions such as battery technology will limit early electric planes to shorter-range trips, with hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuel and hybrid engine technology each playing a role to reach net zero emissions.
Davis pointed out that more than 20 percent of global air travel is made up of trips of less than 250 nautical miles, and half are less than 500 nautical miles. "That’s the segment that we’re targeting, and that’s where our future lies."