Canada’s Harbour Air to fit electric engines on its plane

Grains of salt

There’s been a fair amount of hype when it comes to electric airplanes, much of it driven by Silicon Valley investors who’ve fronted early-round financing into efforts to “disrupt” the aerospace industry, the way they’ve used technology to turn so many retail industries upside down.

There are typically four huge problems with these efforts:

  • Battery technology is a huge limiting factor, and most of the proposals to date are for small, short-ranged passenger craft. So most of the entrants are essentially fighting over the short-range air-taxi segment, which puts them into direct competition with category killers like cars, trains – even Greyhound buses. Those of us who’ve been around awhile might remember that companies like Eclipse Aviation tried to tackle this market a decade ago with Very Light Jets. Have you seen any of them lately?
  • It’s a lot harder to build – and then certify – actual physical flying machines than slick new e-commerce websites. If your website crashes your first day, it’s embarrassing. If an airplane crashes – you know the rest. Plus there’s the whole issue of manufacturing, workforce recruitment and training, and supply chain management. The barriers to entry are high.
  • Cash flow is a major constraint. You’ve got years of very expensive prototype development, plus years of equally expensive certification testing – not to mention the expense of an assembly plant, tooling and supplier contracts. All of those bills must be paid before you can deliver any planes or deposit any checks.
  • And did we mention battery technology is a huge limiting factor? Industry experts, including our own Bjorn Fehrm, believe we’re at least a decade away from having lightweight batteries that can hold a big enough charge to make electric-powered flight truly viable. IATA is out with projections that say we’re closer to two decades away.
Lack of funding

And there may also be a fifth problem: Lack of government research funding for better batteries. Right now, the carbon-friendly Trump Administration is allocating only $24m a year to the main federal battery research institute. Democrats, however, aren’t doing much better: Their proposed Green New Deal puts more emphasis on building out a national high-speed rail network that would do away with the need for the short-range air-taxi market segment.

So what’s different about the MagniX/Harbour Air venture?

A lot.

What MagniX has going for it

For starters, MagniX already has a functioning manufacturing plant, in Surfers Paradise, Australia. It’s got a prototype sitting on a test stand, where it has been spinning for some 1,500 hours.

MagniX also already has a firm launch order, with a reasonably firm timeline for first flight, a reasonable timeline for first deliveries, and crucially, a reasonably good idea about when revenues will start flowing in.

“We’ve got real owners flying real aircraft,” Ganzarski said. “We’re a fully funded company. We’re not looking to raise equity or looking to raise money.”

Because it’s only putting a new engine – granted, an entirely new type of engine — into an already proven airframe, certification will be more straight-forward than if MagniX was trying to build a clean-sheet electric flying machine.

And it has a launch customer that serves a unique niche in a region where the short range of the MagniX-powered planes won’t be a handicap. Harbour Air primarily serves the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, along with parts of northern Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast on the mainland that have limited ground transport options.

Longest route is still short

For Harbour Air, it looks like Seattle-Victoria would be the farthest city-pair the electric-powered planes could connect, initially. It’s just 98 miles.

But if you look around the globe, the plane could be a viable option for missions like New York-Philadelphia,  Hamburg-Hanover or Oahu-Maui.

The planes’ range will only get longer, as batter technology improves, Ganzarski maintains. By the time the Harbour Air planes are certified, late in 2021, there’s going to be a whole new generation of denser, more-powerful batteries available, he said. “I thank Tesla for it. They’ve really led the way in battery research.”

Next steps

While they work on retrofitting small passenger planes for Harbour Air (Ganzarski hinted that MagniX is in talks with other potential customers), the company also will work on developing a clean-sheet electric-powered craft.

A clean-sheet craft will take longer to develop, test and certify, the CEO said, but it will have the advantage of being optimized for battery-powered flight.

For airline operators, MagniX offers lower fuel costs – just plug the planes in when they’re not flying. And since there are very few moving parts in an electric motor, there are far lower maintenance costs.

Overall, Garzanski said, Harbour Air should see operating costs per flight hour that are 70% to 80%  lower than they have now. “Very low operating costs, and no emissions.”

Flexibility compared to rail

The short range of early models puts electric-powered aircraft in direct competition with mass transit in the battle for the hearts, minds and dollars of environmentally minded elected officials–and investors.

Ganzarski’s case for his technology can be boiled down to this: aircraft are more flexible and require less infrastructure build-out, so they’ll be cheaper to deploy.

Say you build a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. That’s great–unless you want to go from L.A. to San Diego.

Electric planes, on the other hand, can fly in any direction and utilize any of the roughly 10,000 general aviation air strips across the United States, Ganzarski said.

“Rail infrastructure is significant,” he said. “You’ve got to lay tracks from the entry point to the exit point. Instead of trying to invest billions and create a rail system, why not use the infrastructure that’s already there?”

 

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