The Prius of planes? Boeing helps first hybrid aircraft take flight

The Prius of planes? Boeing helps first hybrid aircraft take flight

Microlight hybrid aircraft
Cambridge University
Cambridge University has used funding from Boeing to design, build and test this microlight aircraft: the world's first hybrid aircraft. This image is from the YouTube video at the end of this article.

This article first appeared at Dell Tech Page One.

Air travel is expected to increase sixfold by 2050, according to the International Air Transport Association (PDF), which certainly won’t help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are expected to rise by 50 percent (PDF) by 2050.

Many research groups and NASA have attempted to design planes that rely on fuel alternatives in an attempt to reduce carbon footprint. Tesla co-founder Elon Musk has hypothesized that battery-powered planes are the future of aviation.

Most of the conversation has been theoretical — until now. One research group from Boeing and Cambridge University is a step closer to making this a reality, testing the world’s first hybrid aircraft.

“The test flights have gone well, but we did lots of testing on the ground first,” Paul Robertson of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, a leader of the project, told Tech Page One.

Designed with green in mind

Two of the biggest challenges for making hybrid and electric aircraft a reality are the weight and power of batteries. The team needed to build an ultra-lightweight, high-powered battery.

The team ended up designing a hybrid unit that marries an electric motor and a specially tuned gasoline engine. With financing by Boeing, the team built a plane with a customized electric subsystem consisting of a pack of 16 lithium polymer cells placed in the wings, which brings power to and from the engine. This is the first time that a plane is able to recharge while in flight, according to the researchers.

To make the parts lightweight, the team used a custom version of the Song airframe. The mass of this empty craft (without a pilot or fuel) is less than 140 kilograms. The experimental unit uses 30 percent less fuel compared to conventional aircrafts, Robertson added.

Now, the question is how quickly we will see hybrid airplanes take off from commercial airports globally.

Prius of the sky a few decades down the line

The hybrid aircraft handles the same as traditional aircrafts, and it’s also quieter thanks to the electric motor.

However, additional safety concerns might need to be addressed as hybrid technology becomes more widely available. The large batteries on board a plane could be hazardous if not properly monitored and maintained.

The researchers had to house them in a metal compartment with fan cooling and precise temperature, current and voltage readings of every individual cell. Luckily, an automatic battery management system designed by the team monitored this.

As exciting as this breakthrough is, the aircraft itself was very small, and the hybrid technology required to power something as large as a commercial jet is currently out of our reach.

“As the energy density of batteries improves, then larger-scale aircraft will be become viable, but don’t expect hybrid-electric airliners for some decades yet,” Robertson said. “The hybrid power unit is still experimental, but I would imagine that in a few years' time, small aircraft will be commercially available with hybrid power units.”