An all-electric passenger aircraft for the commuter market could be in revenue service by 2026 following an agreement between Rolls-Royce, airframer Tecnam and Scandinavia’s largest regional airline, Widerøe. Rolls-Royce and Tecnam have an existing partnership on powering the all-electric P-Volt aircraft and the engine manufacturer has been working with Widerøe on a sustainable aviation research programme. The all-electric aircraft will be used on the extensive Norwegian domestic network, in which Widerøe offered around 400 flights per day before the pandemic that served 44 airports and where 74% of the flights had distances less than 275 km. The country has ambitions of having the first electrified aircraft in ordinary domestic scheduled flights by 2030 and an 80% emissions reduction from domestic flights by 2040. Rolls-Royce has also announced its electrical technology is to power Vertical Aerospace’s four-passenger all-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and reports it has completed the taxiing of its ’Spirit of Innovation’ plane to test the integration of the propulsion system ahead of actual flight testing and plans to set a world speed record for electric flight.
In respect of the Norwegian project, Rolls-Royce will bring its expertise in propulsion and power systems, Tecnam will provide aircraft design, manufacturing and certification capabilities, while Widerøe will ensure competence and requirements for the aircraft’s commercial operations are in place for the aircraft’s entry into service in 2026.
“We are highly excited to be offered the role as launch operator, but also humble about the challenges of putting the world’s first zero emissions aircraft into service,” said Andreas Aks, Chief Strategy Officer, Widerøe. “Our mission is to have all new capabilities, processes and procedures required for a zero emissions operator, designed and approved in parallel with the aircraft being developed and certified.”
The P-Volt aircraft, which is based on the 11-seat Tecnam P2012 Traveller aircraft, is ideal for short take-off and landing, as well as for routes along the north and west coast of Norway, say the partners. Widerøe’s shortest flight durations are between seven and 15 minutes.
“It is incredible to see the interest around the P-Volt, not only coming from regional airlines but also from smart mobility-based companies,” said Fabio Russo, Chief Project R&D and Product Development at Tecnam. “This last year has demonstrated the importance of promoting capillary connections between small communities, while reducing the congestion of the main hubs.”
Rolls-Royce aims to be the leading supplier of all-electric and hybrid electric propulsion and power systems across multiple aviation markets, said Rob Watson, Director for Rolls-Royce Electrical.
“Electrification will help us deliver our ambition to enable the markets in which we operate achieve net-zero carbon by 2050,” he said. “This collaboration strengthens our existing relationships with Tecnam and Widerøe as we look to explore what is needed to deliver an all-electric passenger aircraft for the commuter market.”
According to data and analytics company GlobalData, all-electric aircraft is one of the most promising options for green aviation. Its research shows using only all-electric aircraft for journeys under 600 nautical miles would reduce airport NOx emissions by 40% and reduce fuel use and direct CO2 emissions by 15%. In the long term and allowing for future development, it estimates journeys up to 1,200nm would reduce airport NOx emissions by 60%, reduce fuel use and direct CO2 emissions by 40% and would account for 80% of all departures.
“However, given the state of contemporary battery technology, all-electric aircraft will not be able to compete in the conventional commercial aircraft market any time soon, certainly not by 2026,” cautioned Harry Boneham, Associate Aerospace, Defense and Security Analyst at GlobalData. “Instead, the opportunity for all-electric aircraft is to introduce a new sector in the industry comprised of small-capacity, sub-600nm range aircraft.
“In this emerging market, the current limitations of battery technology, namely energy density, are offset by the low costs and convenience offered by short-haul flights not bound by the travel hub system. As with the emergence of all new industries, it serves players well to gain an early foothold.
“This cooperative agreement with Tecnam and Widerøe signals that Rolls-Royce appreciates not only the growing regulatory and public pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also recognises the potential of all-electric aircraft to revolutionise the commercial aviation system.”
The Rolls-Royce Electrical collaboration with Vertical Aerospace is its first commercial venture in the urban air mobility (UAM) market. A Rolls-Royce electrical power system will be integrated into the piloted eVTOL aircraft, which will carry up to four passengers for 120 miles at cruise speeds of over 200mph. The engine manufacturer will design the system architecture of the whole electrical propulsion system, the electric power system that includes 100kW-class lift and push electrical propulsion units, and the power distribution and the monitoring system that will support operations.
Around 150 Rolls-Royce engineers based in Hungary, Singapore, Germany, the US and the UK will work with the Bristol, UK-based Vertical Aerospace team on developing the aircraft, which is aiming to be one of the world’s first certified eVTOLs and certified to CAA and EASA safety standards.
“This exciting opportunity demonstrates our ambitions to be a leading supplier of sustainable complete power systems for the new UAM market, which has the potential to transform the way that people and freight move from city to city,” said Watson.
He said the taxiing of the ‘Spirit of Innovation’ aircraft was “an incredible milestone”, with a first flight planned within the next few months and the world speed record attempt later this year. The project is part of the ACCEL programme, short for Accelerating the Electrification of Flight’, which includes partners electric motor and controller manufacturer YASA and aviation start-up Electroflight. Half of the project’s funding is provided by the Aerospace Technology Institute, in partnership with the UK’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK.
“For the first time, the plane propelled itself forward using the power from an advanced battery and propulsion system that is ground-breaking in terms of electrical technology,” said Watson. “The system and the capabilities being developed will help position Rolls-Royce as a technology leader in offering power systems to the UAM market.
Top image: Rolls-Royce/ Tecnam/Widerøe P-Volt
Bottom image: Rolls-Royce/Vertical Aerospace eVTOL