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In the conference halls and on the sidelines of this week’s Dubai Air Show there’s a lot of talk about the future of flight.
But one of the most significant developments could be easily missed among the giant airliners and supersonic fighters on display.
The organisers behind an Airbus-backed electric racing series have released more details about their plans, including unveiling the first aircraft that will compete in the series.
The tiny single-seater plane is dwarfed by the aircraft around it, but Jeff Zaltman likes to think it points a way forward for aviation.
He’s an American businessman behind Air Race E, a project that envisages 16 teams racing electric-powered aircraft around a circuit at up to 450 kmp (278 mph) and about 10 metres (32 ft) off the ground.
Mr Zaltman already runs a successful international aircraft competition, Air Race One, in which planes powered by traditional engines do circuits of a 5.13km oval course. It will be the template for Air Race E.
“I’ve no plans to halt Air Race One, but the time is right for the aviation industry to start thinking about electric racing,” he said. Just as Formula E, the global electric racing car series, has helped promote the potential and acceptance of battery-powered road cars, he believes Air Race E can do a similar job in aviation.
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The aviation industry is in a mild panic about its carbon footprint. Having ignored its emissions problem for years, the industry sees tougher legislation coming down the line – as well as more environmental protests and a customer backlash.
Critics accused the car industry of being too slow to invest in new technologies. In comparison, the aviation industry has barely started.
Electrification in the aviation sector is about 20 years behind the automotive industry, he said. “There’s a lot of catching up to do. We are offering a platform that might help accelerate that technology,” says Mr Zaltman. “Motorsport has always been a testbed for technology.”
Innovations from Formula One found their way into road cars, and the pre-Second World War Schneider Trophy seaplane races helped in the design of the Spitfire.
“In Formula E, manufacturers are piling in to develop and exploit the technology. We see no reason why we cannot help aerospace technology blossom,” Mr Zaltman said.
Formula E started with cars of similar specification, and is only now allowing teams to customise their electric technology. Air Race E is starting with a different format.
Mr Zaltan said that using single-spec cars was a way of keeping costs down and get Formula E established. Air Race E allows teams and manufacturers to use their own electric technology, although there are certain restrictions on aircraft design.
“It’s a better way to test technology,” says the former US Navy avionics engineer. “It doesn’t really test much if all the technology is the same. We think it’s a better way to help companies to leapfrog into a next generation of electric propulsion.”
That Airbus is willing to put its name to Air Race E is a bold statement from the European manufacturer. The series, like any in motorsport, carries a degree of risk.
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So what’s in it for Airbus?
“We are here because we believe in electric technology,” says Sandra Bour Schaeffer, chief executive of Airbus ExO Alpha, a division which explores alternatives to conventional aircraft fuels and design.
“Some of the answers to the future of electric flight will come from programmes like this.”
Airbus has agreed a sponsorship deal, details of which are confidential. In return, she says, Airbus gets to meet and develop ideas with engineers and academics it might not normally come across in the world of big aerospace. There will be data-sharing and cross-pollination of information.
Using battery power instead of conventional engines creates all sort of issues around weight, handling, aerodynamics and design. Airbus sees Air Race E as part of its electric learning curve, and as the racing series and its technology develops so will the input into commercial aircraft.
Airbus is already working on a small hybrid-electric aircraft called E-Fan, scheduled to make its first demonstration flight in 2021. The projects will remain separate, however.
The first team, Condor, was unveiled on Sunday, with another seven announced later this week to maximise the publicity potential of being at one of the world’s biggest aerospace events.
Condor is run by Condor Aviation International, a UK company specialising in building and testing bespoke aircraft.
Mr Zaltman describes the other teams as “an eclectic mix” of companies, entrepreneurs, engineers and pilots who see the “potential and fun” of air racing. Universities, including the UK’s Nottingham, Hull and Teesside, are involved in helping teams to develop the technology.
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The list of host cities is expected to be announced early next year, with the first race held later in 2020. Mr Zaltman won’t disclose the location list, only that they will be cities – the races will be at airports – keen to promote their “environmental pedigree”.
After leaving the navy, Mr Zaltman went to Boston University, then did an MBA in London, and – among other jobs – worked in car company Ford’s business development.
“But I was always a bit entrepreneurial and wanted to set up something for myself,” he said. That “something” became the Air Race One series, which is broadcast in 100 countries and attracts tens of thousands of spectators.
“Air Race One has been going seven years and I’ve no plans to stop it. But I can now see the potential of electric aircraft to revolutionise air travel,” he said.
“Hopefully, when we’re all flying in electric commercial aircraft, engineers will trace some of the roots back to Air Race E.”