UK commuter plane manufacturer Britten-Norman and hydrogen propulsion developer Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS) have announced their intention to merge their businesses, initially to create a fully-integrated zero-emission aircraft for entry into service by 2026. Britten-Norman makes the iconic Islander aircraft, a popular nine-seat commuter plane, while CAeS is pioneering hydrogen-electric fuel cell technology. The two have signed a Heads of Terms Agreement to merge by mid-year, in response, they say, to increasing demand from airlines and other operators wanting to switch to zero-emission aircraft that are backed by an OEM. Their announcement coincides with the rapid expansion of hydrogen powertrain retrofit programmes by ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen, and further progress elsewhere in electric and hybrid-electric aircraft development.
Britten-Norman and CAeS have been working together for more than two years on Project Fresson, through which they have been developing technologies needed to enable a hydrogen propulsion system for Islander aircraft. The project has been supported by funding from the UK government through the UK Aerospace Technology Institute, as well as more than £14 million ($17.5m) in private investment funds.
“By combining CAeS’s pioneering development of a hydrogen-electric fuel cell propulsion system with the existing and proven Britten-Norman aircraft technology, a clear and unambiguous route to market has been created with certification for passenger-carrying service planned for 2026,” said the companies on the planned merger.
The new, yet-to-be-named company will bring together investors from both businesses to progress the new integrated aircraft programme, which they intend to evolve from the initial commuter plane to an all-new zero-emission 100-seat aircraft.
Once the merger is finalised, three CAeS investors, HydrogenOne Capital Growth, Safran Corporate Ventures and UAE-based investment company Strategic Development Fund will invest up to £10 million in the new business. Up to half will come from HydrogenOne, which is leading this funding round. As well, CAeS backers Cranfield University and US-based technology investor Motus Ventures will have shares in the new entity. They will be joined by Britten-Norman’s owners, including lead investor Alawi Zawawi. Further funding is also being raised to support the new company’s growth.
Cranfield Aerospace CEO Paul Hutton said the merger would accelerate his company’s plans to introduce an all-new zero emissions aircraft. “As other sectors decarbonise quickly, it is imperative that the aviation industry accelerates its own transition to new, clean aircraft,” he said. “Looking to the future, we will use the combined experience of Cranfield Aerospace and Britten-Norman to produce an entirely new aircraft design, optimised around hydrogen fuel cell technology.”
Britten-Norman specialises in twin-engine piston and turboprop short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft, and has exported 97% of the 1,300 aircraft it has manufactured. “The merging of Britten-Norman and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions will create a new market leader in green aircraft manufacturing, bringing together joint strengths in aerospace manufacturing, certification and innovation,” said Britten-Norman’s CEO, William Hynett.
The companies said their merger would also produce the first OEM sub-regional aircraft powered by hydrogen, providing significant employment in low-or-zero emission aircraft manufacturing in the UK and boosting the country’s aerospace exports. The combined entity will incorporate seven sites in London, Cranfield, Gosport, Isle of Wight and Southampton in the UK and in Malta and Miami, with around 220 people employed.
The Britten-Norman merger with CAeS coincides with accelerated testing of two retrofit hydrogen powertrain systems for larger turboprop aircraft, one by joint US-UK company ZeroAvia, the other involving US-based Universal Hydrogen. ZeroAvia is currently testing a hydrogen powertrain prototype on a 19-seat Dornier 228 testbed aircraft and has just take delivery of a Q400 aircraft decommissioned by Alaska Airlines, to be converted to a testbed for a hydrogen propulsion system to power 40-80 seat planes (see article). Universal Hydrogen has also started test flights of a Q300 aircraft, retrofitted with portable hydrogen capsules. Universal’s system enables the transfer of containerised hydrogen pods directly to the aircraft they will power, without the need for separate airport infrastructure.
The shift towards all-electric or hybrid-electric commuter planes is gathering pace, with UK-based lessor Monte Aircraft Leasing the latest customer for the nine-seat Eviation Alice, signing a letter of intent to acquire up to 30 of the twin-engined, all-electric aircraft, which offers a 250 nautical mile (463 kilometre) range and a maximum speed of 480 kph. Monte is a specialist provider of low-or-no emission regional aircraft and supporting infrastructure. The order is the second this year for Eviation, which recently secured another 30-plane deal from Mexican regional operator Aerus.
Another US-based start-up, Odys Aviation, has just secured funding from Abu Dhabi-based aviation advisory group Knighthood Global, whose Chairman, former Etihad CEO James Hogan, and one of Knighthood’s partners, former KLM CEO Camiel Eurlings, will also serve on the Odys advisory board. They join the US Air Force as an investor in this Californian company, which is also competing in the nine-seat commuter aircraft market, but with a high-speed, long-range, hybrid-electric vertical take-off or landing (VTOL) plane. Although it has similar capacity to the Eviation Alice and the hydrogen-electric Britten-Norman Islander, the Odys craft will have vertical take-off and landing capacity, using flap-based thrust vectoring rather than swivelling engines to achieve lift, and enabling it to use airports, heliports or vertiports.
Its hybrid-electric powertrain will also enable it fly up to 320 kilometres on electric power, or just over 1,200 kilometres using a mix of electric and conventional gas turbines, which can be powered by sustainable aviation fuel. It is also designed to fly at up to 30,000 feet and speeds of up to 555 kph, powered by 16 propeller motors attached to a box-wing.
“Our plans are revolutionary, bridging the gap between existing technology and fully electric aviation,” said James Dorris, co-founder and CEO of Odys Aviation. “By collaborating with Knighthood, we will expand our depth of industry experience and market reach to travellers, operators and investors around the world.”
Knighthood Chairman James Hogan said his company’s investment provided an exciting opportunity to participate in development of more sustainable air travel. “Air taxis miss the mark,” he said. “Odys is developing sustainable VTOL aircraft to cut the travel time in half on busy travel corridors and create a new era of aviation untethered from runways and large airports.”
South Korean Advanced Air Mobility service provider MintAir recently signed a letter of intent to acquire 30 of the aircraft.
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