Electrified planes will carry cargo soon

by Mark Cardwell

There’s a chance that the 12 electric planes DHL Express ordered in August won’t be ready for delivery by 2024, as contracted.

But experts in aviation, transportation and logistics say that regardless of delivery date, the deal marks an important leg in humanity’s flight to zero emissions for the movement of goods and people through the air.

“It will be very challenging, especially given the level of innovation and new technology being included,” said James Domone, principal engineer at SNC-Lavalin’s U.K.-based aerospace subsidiary Atkins.

“But with the right team (and) budget it’s probably possible – although not likely.”

In August, DHL Express, which owns five regional airlines, announced that it has ordered 12 of the experimental Alice electric cargo aircraft from Seattle-based e-plane maker Eviation.

Powered by electric motors and offering a temperature-controlled cargo bay with 450 cubic feet of capacity – the most in its class – the Alice can be flown by a single pilot and carry up to 1,250 kilograms for 815 kilometres. Recharging the batteries –
which can occur during loading and unloading to reduce turnaround time – takes 30 minutes per flight hour.

Still a fledgling

DHL has ordered 12 Alice electric planes from Eviation.

Though it has been in development for seven years, the Alice has still not taken to the air. However, Eviation CEO Omer Bar-Yohay told Inside Logistics the plane is scheduled to make its maiden flight before the end of 2021 – and that it will be ready for service in three years’ time.

“Alice comprises proven technologies and design elements that are not reliant on future advancements, helping to streamline the certification process,” Bar-Yohay said.

“Building any aircraft, especially the world’s first from-scratch electric commuter plane, is an iterative process requiring various tests, lessons learned, and customer feedback.”

Feeder routes

Robert Hyslop, executive vice-president of DHL Aviation, which operates the nearly 200 aircraft in DHL’s fleet, said the 12 Alice aircraft on order will “definitely” be used on its feeder aircraft operations around the globe.

“This is separate and distinct from electric drone delivery systems,” Hyslop said. “In the case of feeder aircraft, we are linking one DHL service point to another, and not directly to the consignee of a shipment.”

He added that the current e-aircraft opportunity is for feeder aircraft with approximately 1.25 tons of payload and about 400 nautical miles (740 km) of range. That is similar to what DHL currently flies with a Cessna Caravan or Beach 1900, he noted.

E-planes will fly

For his part, Domone remains unconvinced the Alice will be ready for delivery by 2024. However, he said it’s only a question of time before fully approved electric planes become part of the aviation landscape. “Electric aircraft are definitely viable, but that is highly dependent on the size, range, payload requirements and, crucially, the timescales for introduction,” he said.

He noted that aviation giants like Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Safran are now investing heavily in electric propulsion systems, with start-ups like Eviation, Joby and Vertical concentrating on airframes.

But, he believes current limits on battery technology will restrict e-plane development to small aircraft operating over short distances for the next 10 years. “Battery power density is the key metric driving this,” Domone said. “This is predicted to increase, but probably not to the level that will support aircraft larger than flying 10 passengers over a few hundred miles in the next 30 to 40 years.”

Flying electric Beaver

David Gillen, a professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business and director of its Centre for Transportation Studies, agrees. “Electric aircraft are feasible and current testing and demonstrations show that in the near term short-haul flights are quite feasible,” he said. “I would guess that, cargo flights will be the first to experience electric aircraft, and at some point, pilotless electric aircraft.”

He pointed to the efforts of Vancouver-based Harbour Air, the largest seaplane airline in North America, to remake the iconic Canadian Beaver bush plane into the first fully electric, CO2-free aircraft certified for commercial use in Canada. The De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver has been a cargo delivery workhorse since 1947, serving remote Canadian communities, and resource operations.

By September 2021, Harbour Air had performed nearly 30 test flights with the eBeaver since the first flight in December 2019. The company is working with magniX and H55 to refine the plane’s performance.

The companies will collaborate, together with Transport Canada, to certify the installation of the magniX electric propulsion unit and the H55 enhanced battery system, eventually transforming Harbour Air’s seaplanes into an all-electric commercial fleet. Current flight tests are measuring and collecting data on cruise performance and take-off thrust efficiency, electro-magnetic interference (EMI), battery management software logic, noise levels, and more. MagniX, Harbour Air and H55 will work on design optimization for the electric propulsion unit (EPU), energy storage system (ESS) and related aircraft systems based on ongoing flight testing.

Other emissions-free options

“Keep in mind that electric aircraft are one technological answer to moving towards zero emissions in aviation,” said Gillen, adding that hydrogen and other energy sources for propulsion other than batteries are being developed in other transportation sectors, notably automotive.

“The cost of fossil fuels will soon become prohibitive,” he said. “Longhaul flights will have to focus on biofuels or alternative zero-emission fuels.