Collaborative Research to Make Vision of Electric Aviation Come True

HY4 electric flight powered by a fuel cell
HY4: Electric flight powered by a fuel cell. Image courtesy of DLR.

Electromobility is already deeply ingrained in the European automotive industry and transport research. Moreover, the development of electrical drive systems for automotive applications has also given momentum to the vision of carbon-neutral and electric aviation.

HY4 fuel cell propulsion system. Image courtesy of DLR.

The third E²Flight Symposium, held by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) and the University of Stuttgart on 5 and 6 October 2017 in Stuttgart, brought together representatives of the international science and industry community who are researching and working in the area of electric flight. Unique in Europe, the symposium featured discussions on new technological concepts in the area of energy engineering and drive technologies, as well as on current projects and visionary ideas for the future of electric aviation.

“The ideas are gradually gaining in magnitude and complexity”

“Progress in the areas of electric drive systems and lightweight construction now offer a plethora of opportunities to take electromobility to the skies. In the coming years, science and industry will work together to advance electric drive systems for aviation applications and hence enable more environmentally friendly air transport in the long term,” said Rolf Henke, DLR Executive Board Member for Aeronautics research. This year’s E²Fliegen Symposium also promoted the necessary knowledge transfer and collaboration between institutional, university and industrial research sectors, as it has done in previous years.

Starr Ginn, Deputy Aeronautics Research Director at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, believes that precisely this kind of collaboration holds the key to the future of electric flight: “All of the ideas proposed by the participating institutions begin small and gradually grow in magnitude and complexity. Knowledge exchange helps to expand and improve the global market for electric flight.” Frank Anton, Head of Electric Aircraft at Siemens, also emphasises the importance of cooperation: “Siemens Electric Aircraft develops hybrid electric drive systems for aircraft and intends to grow this area as a future business division. To do so, Siemens is engaged in a large-scale collaboration with Airbus and cooperates with smaller aircraft manufacturers as well. We are convinced that working with universities and DLR above all is a highly significant factor in the development of this disruptive innovation.” Anton believes that the E²Flight Symposium is a vital contributor in this area: “Since its inception, the symposium has emerged as an important specialist conference at European level for all institutions working on electric drive systems for aeronautic applications.”  The DLR Institute of Engineering Thermodynamics in Stuttgart and the DLR facility Flight Experiments in Braunschweig organised the event in collaboration with the Institute of Aircraft Design (IFB) at the University of Stuttgart.

Long list of benefits

The research and industrial communities agree: the list of benefits associated with aircraft fitted with electric drive systems is long. Not only do these powertrains produce zero local emissions, they are also extremely energy efficient and quiet. In addition, their compact size and low weight also enable the design of entirely new aircraft types. “We will be able to revolutionise the entire principle of how aircraft are built. Electric drives enable new aeronautic concepts and therefore more efficient structures,” explains Johannes Garbino-Anton from the DLR Flight Experiments Facility. Energy storage units and hybrid systems featured largely at the E²Flight Symposium, alongside future aviation hardware and improved integration of electric drive systems.

Challenges for larger passenger aircraft

In the four-seat passenger aircraft HY4, DLR scientists have already proven that a hybrid drive concept comprising a low-temperature hydrogen fuel cell and a high-performance battery works successfully. “The major challenge for the future is to create electric drive systems for large passenger aircraft as well,” says André Thess, Director of the DLR Institute for Engineering Thermodynamics. “With this vision in mind, we are currently working to continue improving the fuel cell powertrain.” Knowledge exchange between the industrial and research communities during the E²Flight Symposium at the start of October was a major step forward in this bright new future.

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