A fleet of electric aircraft could eventually be criss-crossing the Strait of Georgia.
Harbour Air Seaplanes, the world’s first carbon-neutral airline, announced Tuesday it plans to convert its fleet of more than 40 aircraft to electric propulsion to become the world’s first emissions-free passenger airline in a joint venture with MagniX, an electric aviation propulsion systems development company in Redmond, Wash.
Greg McDougall, Harbour Air Seaplanes founder and CEO, said the first Harbour Air prototype electric floatplane will start making test flights in November.
“I’m certain we can get the first aircraft up, so that’s as confident as you can be, I guess,” McDougall said. “The reason I say that is that the technology to do it actually exists today and it’s basically a matter of retrofitting that technology to existing technology.”
The test bed for electric commercial flight will be a six-passenger DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver, a Canadian aircraft design flying since 1947.
Harbour Air’s electric Beaver will have its engine replaced with a much lighter, simpler electric motor and one tonne of battery packs replacing the aircraft’s fuel tanks to give it 30 minutes’ flight range with 30 minutes’ reserve power, more than sufficient to cover all of Harbour Air’s routes.
“Range is a matter of perspective,” said Roei Ganzarski, MagniX CEO. “Are we going to fly from Vancouver to Toronto non-stop? No, but Vancouver to Nanaimo or Vancouver to Victoria non-stop on all-electric is doable today.”
MagniX has tested its motors and battery setups on a test jig, which has logged 1,500 hours’ operation. The Beaver will be the first aircraft to fly a 750-horsepower MagniX propulsion system, which Ganzarski said is the power level planned for Harbour Air’s entire fleet. The Beaver, he said, offers the benefit of being a simple aircraft design that allows relatively easy placement of batteries and other systems without changing the plane’s centre of gravity.
“That’s the beauty of the Beaver … It’s really made to be very simple and it’s basically a flying tank … the only thing right now is that this has never been done before,” Ganzarski said. “There are no electric propulsion systems out there at the scale that we’re building. There are no electric aircraft at the scale that we’re building … with Harbour Air. So that’s the only challenge is that we’re that we’re doing this for the first time.”
McDougall said the prototype will operate as an experimental aircraft to prove the system and gain certification to carry passengers. He hopes to fly passengers aboard electric planes by 2022, albeit with possibly lighter loads to maximize aircraft range.
“We still won’t be able to fly with a full plane, but we will be able to fly with enough people to make it economically viable because the costs are extremely reduced,” McDougall said.
Electric motors burn no fuel, have few moving parts so they require little maintenance, and last far longer than fossil-fuelled motors, “so you’re looking at an entirely different financial model,” McDougall said. “You’ve got a motor on a plane that will go for 10,000 hours versus 3,000 and you probably wouldn’t even … rebuild it. You’d just throw it away and get a new one.”
While other companies, including major aircraft manufacturers, are focused on developing everything from small vertical take-off and landing flying commuter vehicles to full-size long-range airliners, none are attempting retrofitting an existing fleet to all-electric propulsion, he said.
“We’re doing the most boring, unsexy part of aviation … It’s the same aircraft that the regulatory authorities know. It’s the same aircraft that the airlines know. It’s the same aircraft the passengers know. So, we’re trying to keep things as simple as possible because simplicity is how you drive a revolution,” Ganzarski said.
McDougall said response to the announcement has been “incredibly positive,” but he also expects education will be needed to get some passengers comfortable with electrically powered aircraft.
He went on to say MagniX is providing the test system for free and the actual cost of the systems will be worked in on a future business plan, but he foresees no insurmountable technical hurdles to a successful outcome of the program.
“As a company, we’re super excited to be a part of continuing the Canadian legacy of being innovative in aviation,” McDougall said. “That’s something we’re super proud of and the company’s really excited about it and it seems to be positive in every way.”