Harbour Air testing world's first all-electric commercial seaplane
Published Tuesday, December 10, 2019 7:15AM PST Last Updated Tuesday, December 10, 2019 7:26PM PST
RICHMOND, B.C. -- Into the air, and into the history books. On Tuesday morning, Vancouver’s Harbour Air successfully ran the world’s first test flight of an all-electric commercial aircraft.
The frame of the Beaver floatplane is 62 years-old, but it’s retrofitted with a 750 horsepower propulsion system, powered by batteries.
The flight took off from Richmond, B.C. on Tuesday and lasted about three minutes. Harbour Air’s CEO Greg McDougall was behind the controls.
"For me, that flight was just like flying a Beaver, but it was a Beaver on electric steroids," McDougall said. "The only way to really know what it was going to do was to fly it. And I was really surprised at how quickly it wanted to get in the air."
McDougall is a Tesla owner, and says that’s where the idea to power an aircraft with electricity came from. His company teamed up with Seattle-based engineering firm magniX, which has been working on an electric engine for aviation.
“In early 2018 we pivoted the company and decided to focus purely on aviation. Then in early 2019 we got together with Harbour Air and said, 'Let’s turn this into a real thing.' And here we are today," said Roei Ganzarski, the CEO of magniX.
Ganzarski’s excitement was obvious.
"This is like having a fourth child," he said. "It is really the birth of something brand new at a global scale. And to see all the hard work of my team and the Harbour Air team coming together to take the aircraft into the air was unimaginable."
The batteries that power the Beaver are NASA-approved lithium-ion batteries that were also used on the International Space Station. They can provide about 35 minutes of flying time and the hope is that as battery technology improves, one of these could power a one or two hour flight.
“The evolution of lithium batteries is constant and there are literally billions of dollars being poured into that technology as we speak,” McDougall said.
The operating costs are between 50 and 80 per cent lower than combustion engines and ultimately, that will mean lower ticket prices for passengers, McDougall said.
But even though the test flight was deemed a success, passengers won’t be buying tickets for electric-powered flights any time soon. The engine and aircraft need to be certified to fly, a process that’s estimated to take about two years.
"We have been encouraging the development of these new technologies, but obviously because we have a responsibility to certify new technologies, we will be going through that process," Transport Minister Marc Garneau told reporters in Ottawa.
“This does take a little bit of time to ensure that we make sure that this airplane, if it’s going to go into commercial use, or just be used by anybody to fly, is going to be safe under all the conditions that it’s expected to fly in.”
Dozens of companies are working on electric planes, including Boeing and Airbus. Israeli company Eviation unveiled a nine-seat, all-electric plane named “Alice” at the Paris Air Show in June, which also happens to be a magniX project.
Weight, altitude and storage remain the biggest barriers to flying electric. A mid-sized passenger plane weighs 100 times as much as a mid-sized car and the battery technology hasn't quite adjusted to the aviation market.
Fuel also remains about 40 to 50 times more power dense than batteries, Ganzarski said. But the team expects innovation in the battery industry to continue in the same way for aviation as it has for electric cars. The key will be developing batteries that are more compact at the same time that they are more powerful.
Ganzarski says there is much more to come.
“December 10, 2019 will be remembered as the day the electric aviation age started.”
With files from The Canadian Press