Navy hired this company to develop a new type of aircraft

The Naval Air Systems Command recently hired a company called Electra to study the development of such an electrically-powered plane.

New military aircraft designs don’t necessarily require super jet engines or hundreds of billions in development costs. A case in point: The Navy’s bid for a light plane that can take off and land in less than a football field. The Naval Air Systems Command recently hired a company called Electra to study the development of such an electrically-powered plane. For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the founder and CEO of Electra.aero, John Langford.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And just a brief technological description of what your company does. It’s more than just planes that can land in a short space, but it’s the propulsion that’s radically different.

John Langford Exactly. Electra.aero is a US company started about four years ago, whose focus is sustainable aviation. We believe that the whole next generation of aviation, at least commercial aviation, is really all about decarbonization. And we’re working in a part of the market that we think is relatively unaddressed within, but with enormous market potential, which is sort of the short haul and regional air mobility market. What Electra is doing is developing a hybrid electric, extreme short takeoff and landing airplane. Think of something with the operational flexibility of a helicopter, but with the cost structure at or below existing fixed wing airplanes. Electra uses a technique called blown lift, which is an idea that has been around for many years, was pioneered by NASA back in the 60s and demonstrated by NASA and the Air Force in the 70s, but which has never yet reached commercial utilization, primarily because the engines that existed at the time were not well suited economically to this idea of blown lift. But electric propulsion, distributed electric propulsion is really the breakthrough, which, combined with the idea of blown lift, makes this new category of airplanes possible. That’s what Electra it’s all about.

Tom Temin Blown lift then makes the wing feel like it’s going faster than it actually is. So the plane goes up even though it’s not going forward as fast as usual, rotation speed.

John Langford Exactly. The idea of blown lift is you bathe the wing in accelerated flow from many different propellers on there, and it accelerates the flow over the wing and it effectively makes the wing look bigger than it physically is, which is how we get the eventually the high lift coefficients. Then the slow flight speeds and the slow speeds are what allow you to do the really short takeoff and landings.

Tom Temin And have you tested it with a barn door yet?

John Langford We’ve tested it with a whole range of things, from pencil and pen calculations to computer fluid dynamics to subscale models. And now today, we have a full scale manned demonstrator flying right out at Manassas Regional Airport. And it’s really neat to see how all of the theory actually translates into practice very well.

Tom Temin And what has the Navy asked you to do to prototype a plane for its use, or to study the concept? What is the actual contract deliverable here?

John Langford So Electra’s primary focus is a commercial product aimed at, commercial operators. But at the same time, there’s a lot of government uses for an airplane that can take off and land very quietly in very small spaces. Our biggest financial backer to date from the government has been the Air Force through their Agility Prime program, which is helping sponsor the development, not only of the test program that we’re flying today, but also of a prototype airplane of the nine seed airplane product. As they’ve seen, the Air Force interests, both the Army and the Navy, have now become interested in how this technology might actually benefit them. And the Navy contract that we announced last week is really the first study of how that might be applied in the marine environment.

Tom Temin So they need not just the technology, but it sounds like they’re looking for a use case for this type of craft.

John Langford Absolutely. An airplane that can operate in sort of helicopter like spaces, but at the very low cost, comparatively, of a fixed wing airplane has a lot of potential uses. And commercially, what we’re trying to do is get in and out of the Wall Street Heliport, which would allow fixed wing airplanes to fly right into Manhattan, which is a little bit of a mind boggling idea when you think about it. That would enable direct air service from Manhattan to Washington, DC, right on a on a fixed wing airplane, not on a helicopter. And if you can land on that, if you’re familiar with what that heliport looks like. Barge in the East River. And that’s where the space of 300ft by 100ft, our operating requirement  comes from there. Once you can operate in a space that size, there’s all kinds of other places you can go the top of parking garages, literally any soccer field. And as you start to look at the marine environment, you start to go, wow, when you have a little wind over the deck, now you’re talking about distances that are even shorter than the 300 foot or the 150 foot ground rule that we’re talking about. These  airplanes take off and land between 25 and 30 knots, which is down in the range of ships can achieve that. And if there’s wind over the deck, either generated by ship motion or by by the wind itself, you can get into situations where these airplanes literally can almost take off vertically. There are historical examples of previous Stol airplanes, not blown lift airplanes, but previous Stol airplanes that can do essentially a vertical takeoff in the right wind conditions. And that’s really the heart of the study we’re going to be doing for the Navy is, well, what does this really mean? Some of the ideas we’re thinking about is this allows you to take container ships. And use a container ship to add aircraft, fixed wing aircraft operations off a container ship, off an oil tanker, off anything with a space of 50 to 100ft. That’s part of the study. How you treat some of these, the idea that now you have a reliable wind over the deck condition. What does that really mean for the operations of an airplane like this, which only needs 150ft ground roll to begin with? How does that really work in practice in the marine environment? That’s the focus of this initial study.

Tom Temin We’re Speaking with John Langford, he’s the founder and CEO of Electra.aero. And what is the status of this propulsion technology? Because pure electric planes have been flown, but they’re kind of like electric motorcycles. Lots of fun if you don’t want to go anywhere.

John Langford Exactly. When you look at conventional jet fuel, and you look at the very best batteries, there’s still a factor of between 50 and 100 in the amount of energy you can contain for a given amount of weight. And in cars, if your car weighs twice, your battery car weighs twice what your, gas car weighs, nobody really notices. The people who have to maintain the roads or the people who sell you the tires, they notice. But the average consumer doesn’t really realize how much heavier their electric cars are. Aviation weight is everything. Absolutely, the name of the game is how you get this high performance at low weight. And so batteries are not really well suited to aviation today. They may well be as the battery technology progresses over the next, 10, 25, 50, 100 years. But today it’s only in very limited cases that batteries buy their way on to an airplane. So what we are focused on is a hybrid solution. Think very much like, a Prius where there is both batteries and there is, in our case, a small gas turbine engine. Think of it like an auxiliary propulsion unit or something like that. They will work together in normal operations for takeoff and landing. Either one can power the airplane in an emergency. So one of the cool things the hybrid does is it gives you lots of redundancies that you don’t have on an airplane normally in this weight category. And then they allow lots of really neat advantages. Essentially what we do is we operate the gas turbine at a single fixed operating point, and we run it that way for a really long time.

John Langford So the two big drivers of maintenance cost on jet engines are how many throttle cycles you do, and how many times you turn it off and on. So both of those are dramatically reduced in the hybrid thing. And all of the throttle excursions are taken up by the batteries, which are actually pretty good at changing their loads very quickly. So we think it’s really a nice combination that is going to work well, and not just in our nine seat airplane. We actually think this technology is very scalable. We’re already talking with NASA about ideas about how this might scale up into airplanes as large as several hundred seats in a passenger. I think the whole idea of hybrid electric airplanes is actually something we’re going to hear a lot about over the next couple of decades. And we think Electra is really just a pioneer in that in the technology and in the market space.

Tom Temin But just to be clear, you do have craft built and flying around with this technology.

John Langford Absolutely right. We started out companies four years old. We spent the first two years developing and proving the hybrid electric system before we even built any kind of airplane. We spent the first two years developing and testing the hybrid electric propulsion system, and then we built an airplane. We wrapped the airplane around it. And that airplane, is called the, the EL2, goldfinch. And it’s flying today out in Manassas. It’s a two place airplane about the size of a Cessna 172. And it’s being used to validate all of the systems before we build the actual product, which is a nine passenger version.

Tom Temin It strikes me you could have the future locomotive at your fingertips also.

John Langford The electrification of things is going to be a big part of the next industrial revolution. And over the last 20 years, it’s all been how do you put everything on the internet. The next 25 years is going to be how you make everything, some version of electric. Whether it’s pure battery, whether it’s hybrid. I’m a big believer of hybrid. These are steps towards a future that may be hydrogen based or something like that, but there are steps that can be taken today with the existing technology, and they don’t require a rework of the entire distribution system. And so they’re very practical even if they’re only interim steps. And by interim, I mean this makes several generations 25 to 50 years, which is still a pretty good product lifecycle.

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