INNOVATION & TECHNOLOGY

Rolls-Royce Unveils All-Electric Plane

Rolls-Royce’s hopes to build the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft and the company has taken steps forward with the unveiling of the plane at Gloucestershire Airport. Work will now begin on integrating the electrical propulsion system to enable the zero-emissions plane to make a run for the record books with a target speed of 300+ MPH (480+ KMH) in late Spring 2020. 

The plane is part of a Rolls-Royce initiative called ACCEL – short for “Accelerating the Electrification of Flight” and is a key part of Rolls-Royce’s strategy to champion electrification. The project involves a host of partners including electric motor and controller manufacturer YASA and the aviation start-up Electroflight. Half of the project’s funding is provided by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), in partnership with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK.

“The UK has a proud heritage and enviable worldwide reputation for advances in aviation technology. The electrification of flight has the potential to revolutionize the way we travel and transform aviation for decades to come – ensuring we can travel worldwide while maintaining a low carbon footprint,” says Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi. “Backed by Government funding, Rolls-Royce is pushing the boundaries even further and this new innovation could become the fastest electric plane ever.”

Rob Watson, director of Rolls-Royce Electrical says: “Building the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft is nothing less than a revolutionary step change in aviation and we are delighted to unveil the ACCEL project plane. This is not only an important step towards the world-record attempt but will also help to develop Rolls-Royce’s capabilities and ensure that we are at the forefront of developing technology that can play a fundamental role in enabling the transition to a low carbon global economy.”

The ionBird test airframe, named after the electrical technology propelling the aircraft, was also unveiled recently. The ionBird will be used to test the propulsion system before it is fully integrated into the plane. Planned tests over the next couple of months include running the propulsion system up to full power as well as key airworthiness checks.

“The ATI is proud to partner with Rolls-Royce on the ACCEL programme because we believe it will lead to exciting new developments in electric propulsion. One of the priorities of the ATI is looking at how aviation can be more sustainable, and ACCEL will be a critical step in our understanding of how electric propulsion fits into that broader aspiration for the UK aerospace sector,” said Gary Elliott, CEO of the Aerospace Technology Institute. “We are also excited about the way it establishes a new and innovative supply chain, bringing together the best of the UK that includes cross-sector expertise, start-up energy and critical domain leadership.”

Rolls-Royce says ACCEL will have the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft, providing enough energy to fuel 250 homes or fly 200 miles (London to Paris) on a single charge. Its 6,000 cells are packaged to minimize weight and maximize thermal protection. An advanced cooling system ensures optimum performance by directly cooling cells during the high-power record runs.

The propeller is driven by three high power density axial electric motors and compared to a conventional plane, the propeller blades spin at a far lower RPM to deliver a more stable and far quieter ride. Combined they’ll continuously deliver more than 500 horsepower for the record run. Even during the record run the all-electric powertrain delivers power with 90 percent energy efficiency and of course zero emissions. (In comparison, a Formula 1 race car tops out at close to 50 percent energy efficiency). 

Chris Harris, CEO, YASA said: “YASA’s electric motor technology is ideal for powering electric flight – the advantages we see on the road are amplified in the air where reducing size and weight for a given power and torque is even more important. We share the same passion for engineering as the team at Rolls-Royce and are delighted to partner with them on ACCEL, a project that’s ushering in a new age of sustainable, electric flight.”

Rolls-Royce is also partnering with Airbus on the E-Fan X technology demonstrator project, which is a stepping stone towards hybrid electric commercial aircraft at the scale of today’s single aisle family. The company is also working with Widerøe, the largest regional airline in Scandinavia on a joint research program on zero-emissions aviation. That program is part of the airline’s ambition to replace and electrify its regional fleet of 30+ planes by 2030.

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