It’s been over a hundred years since Louis Blériot made history as the first person to fly a plane across the English Channel in 1909. And in July, aerospace industry leaders Airbus Group paid tribute to that landmark journey with the world’s first manned cross-Channel flight by an electric aircraft.

We take a look at the tech behind this revolutionary plane, as well as what it might mean for fuel saving.

A brief history of e-craft

Electric aviation – in some form, at least – isn’t actually a new concept.

In the 1880s, for example, two French army officers equipped a hydrogen balloon with batteries and an 8-horsepower electric motor in order to gain more control over its direction.

In 1973, the Militky MB-E1 became the first full-sized, manned aircraft to fly using only electric power.

And, as we all know, remote control drones have recently become the latest hi-tech toy for casual aviation and espionage enthusiasts all across the world.

But the July journey from Lydd to Calais marks a milestone in low-emission, low-noise air travel – the first time that an all-electric aircraft has made a flight across the English Channel.

Airbus E-Fan running costs

At just 500kg, the E-Fan’s completely carbon-fibre construction is so light that it only costs around £10 an hour to run.

That’s compared to £35 an hour for a petrol-powered plane of a similar size.

With a 31-foot wingspan and a length of 22 feet, the E-Fan’s certainly no Jumbo Jet – and, despite its low weight, its 120-cell lithium polymer battery can only carry it for about an hour before it needs recharging or replacing.

Wiring and radio risks

On top of that, its engineers have struggled with managing electromagnetic interference with its radio systems, and dealing with the effects of vibration on the aircraft’s wiring. But limitations like these are to be expected from a proprietary and innovative technology.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Didier Esteyne, Airbus test pilot and the designer of the E-Fan, explained ‘The E-Fan project shows the role that electric flight can play in the future of aerospace, and the Channel crossing is an important demonstration of its capabilities and a milestone in the project’s development’.

Emissions and sound

As a two-seater aircraft, the E-Fan isn’t quite ready to revolutionise the commercial air travel industry just yet.

But it could help airlines to be smarter about their business energy use, especially in relation to two important challenges.

The EU’s target of reducing aviation CO2 emissions (pdf) by 75 per cent per passenger kilometre and local problems with aircraft noise mean low-emission, low-noise planes could give a competitive advantage.

What next for electric aviation?

Unfortunately, we’ll probably have to wait a little while longer before we start to see any large-scale electric aircraft.

Airbus is currently working on an electric-powered hybrid airliner with around 90 seats that could be on the market in the 2030s. Its high-powered and efficient electric motors, along with high-density energy storage, could mean that it will operate at a fraction of the cost when compared with the planes of today.

And with a much lower noise output, an electric airliner could potentially be flown around the clock. The strict noise regulations that are currently limiting the flight schedules of today’s planes wouldn’t necessarily apply.
But for now, Airbus is happy to focus on making history with its flight across the Channel.

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