The aviation world is about to dramatically change, moving from conventional power toward electrification. It is a process that has been percolating for several years. The major auto manufacturers have joined Tesla and we will soon have a panoply of electric autos to choose from. Aviation is just a step behind, but Pipistrel currently has an all-electric trainer in service, Bye Aerospace is moving closer to having two and four-seat models in production, Eviation will soon have its first flight, and MagniX is offering a family of electric engines offering 375shp and 750shp that can replace both piston and turboprops in existing and future aircraft models.
In August 2020 we did a podcast with several industry people that is worth watching.
Let’s move ahead a decade and imagine what is going to happen. First, piston-engine aircraft will be largely displaced by electric aircraft. Electric motors are lighter than piston or turboprop engines, and as battery efficiency increases, more aircraft will be converted from conventional power to electric power.
Maintenance costs with electric power will be significantly lower since electric motors have few moving parts. New entrants like Eviation will enter the market with designs built specifically for electric operation. Larger models, including small turboprops, will also begin to convert to electric power. MagniX is already flying an electrified Cessna Caravan and could power a number of current turboprop aircraft in a few years. Could FedEx go green with its Caravan fleet for smaller cities and electrify them? It is now within the realm of possibilities.
Technology trends tend to have a life of their own, and from an environmental standpoint, an electric aircraft will be emissions-free, have lower noise, and take the focus off of smaller aircraft as a source of pollution. While we are not yet ready to electrify large aircraft due to the weight and limited capacity of today’s batteries.
A solid-state battery could offer more rapid charging and additional capacity during the coming decade. The good news is that battery technology is improving, and electric aircraft range can increase to levels normally associated with piston or turboprop engines. But this will take time. In the interim, however, product development strategies will be dramatically impacted at the lower end of the market for piston and turboprop models.
For existing players, the aviation world is about to drastically change. Replacing small turboprops with electric motors will certainly impact Pratt & Whitney Canada and its PT6 family, as well as GE with its all-new Catalyst engine. The handwriting is on the wall that once electric options are available, and battery technology continues to improve, the benefits from both a cost and environmental standpoint will be significant. Change, which may take a decade or more, will inevitably occur. Will the existing players be ready with electric technology to replace their existing turboprop engines? So far, we haven’t seen any evidence to indicate that they will.
For Pratt & Whitney Canada this could represent a slow decline of PT6 sales and the accompanying aftermarket revenues. With the electric competition that has few moving parts, the whole nature of service and support revenues will change, and likely with it the need for power by the hour contracts. The aviation world is about to drastically change.
Starting with two-seat trainers, moving to four-seat personal aircraft and nine-seat commuters, then utility aircraft like the Caravan, the electrification process will work its way up the industry. Could we see electric Pilatus PC-12s, even with potentially limited range, in environmentally conscious Europe? Quite likely in our view. Will higher speed turboprops convert? Could the Cessna Sky Courier become an electric twin in regional operations? And how about the venerable King Air? As battery technology continues to improve, we could see a one-by-one conversion to electric power, or new models replacing conventional engine aircraft. The migration path will offer proof that the aviation world is about to drastically change.
Winners and Losers
Early adopters have a significant market advantage over those trying to technologically catch up. Pipistrel now offers its engine and control systems technology to other manufacturers. MagniX is looking to carve out a leadership position in electric aircraft engine technology, and their retrofit programs on Beavers, Otters, and Caravans have given them the necessary experience to land an OEM mandate in the near future.
Those who stick to existing technology and don’t catch the wave will find themselves as the losers in this environment. That may mean that some of the older names in aviation may disappear as new entrants (like Siemens) with vision enter the market with aircraft and engines that slash operating and maintenance costs.
Rolls-Royce has a very public aero-electrification process underway, which is to their credit. The image at the top of this story is the Rolls-Royce electric iron bird. SAFRAN is also publicly involved in this technology and so is GE.
However, we may see, for example, Raytheon (Pratt & Whitney’s parent) buy a firm like MagniX. In a conversation with a senior Pratt & Whitney executive several years ago, he explained their approach to buying new technologies from outside the company this way. “It’s easier for us to spend $100m to buy something that is proven than to pay $10m for that technology early on. We won’t risk losing $10m when we can bet $100m with certainty.”
We’ve still a ways to go, but the handwriting is on the wall for several companies, including some who may be introducing the newest generation of older technology products that may soon be replaced in the market.