By Brad Smith | Sep 10, 2018
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: Electric aircraft
Electric vehicles have taken the roadways by storm. The next frontier is the air.
A first mover, Bye Aerospace has flown a prototype of its electric plane at Centennial Airport in Englewood, Colorado, and is hoping to get Federal Aviation Administration certification by 2020. The market is primed: The company already has orders for 130 of the planes.
Bye isn't alone in his view of the opportunity to put electric airplanes in the sky. Among those who have expressed an interest are Boeing, Airbus, Siemens, and several smaller companies, including Uber and a firm financed by Larry Page, co-founder of Google. Some are looking at hybrid airplanes using electrical and gasoline power and others at electrical only.
Several prototypes or experimental electric airplanes have taken off in recent years, but not all have been successful. An all-electric plane called the Magnus eFusion, which Siemens helped build, crashed in Hungary earlier in 2018, killing the pilot and passenger. But the potential cost-savings and environmental benefits have stimulated continuing widespread interest.
Bye is targeting a select market for his electric airplane: the airplanes typically used by aviation schools to train new pilots. The Aspen Flying Club, based at Centennial Airport, has ordered 30 of the planes, the Bye Sun Flyer 2, and Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, which has several U.S. schools including one in Denver, has ordered 20 more.
Bye points to research done by Boeing this year that projected the demand for pilots will double over the next 20 years. But, he says, learning to fly is so costly that many prospective pilots can't afford it. "Eighty percent of student pilots drop out," he says, "and the number one reason cited is the cost of flying. "There's a great market [for new pilots] but also a great problem to solve in helping these student make it through."
Operating costs for the Sun Flyer 2 are an order of magnitude lower than the traditional piston-engine trainers, says Bye, "with no carbon emissions and significantly reduced noise. We are excited about the future and the potential the Sun Flyer family of aircraft has to revolutionize general aviation, providing improved affordability and accessibility."
The Sun Flyer 2 will be able to fly about three hours on a battery charge, providing two or three flight training sorties without recharging. With a supercharger a full charge can be achieved in as little as 20 minutes.
Earlier this year, Bye announced that Siemens will provide the electric motors for the two-seat Sun Flyer 2 and the coming four-seat Sun Flyer 4. Bye already has orders for the Sun Flyer 4. Electric Power Systems of Logan, Utah, provides the energy storage technology. The latter includes battery modules, a battery management unit, and a power distribution unit.
When Bye Aerospace launched in 2007, Bye says, "We started with a very deliberate focus on creating a GA [general aviation] electric trainer. Now that we've demoed the electric prototype, our next step is production development. We will work with the FAA to certify it and then start production deliveries."
The FAA has announced its support for the development of electric airplanes under its new Part 23 rules. Bye says he expects the Sun Flyer will be certified by mid-2020. "We've had great meetings with them and they're trying to be very helpful. They view the benefits in a positive way."
Bye has been fascinated by aircraft since he was young. His mother was a pilot, and Bye became an engineer and then an Air Force pilot, with nearly 4,000 flight hours. He says he has always wanted to build a better airplane. He formed the Aviation Technology Group in 2000 with that goal in mind but the company shut down in 2007 due to lack of financing.
In addition to the Sun Flyer family of airplanes, Bye Aerospace also is developing a solar-powered airplane, the StratoAirNet. The plane, which has been ground-tested, is being developed as an unmanned aerial vehicle although it could have a pilot. The wing-mounted solar cells come from SolAero Technologies Corp. of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Bye says the StratoAirNet, which could fly up to 35,000 feet, would initially be used for surveying and patrolling. Customers would come from industries like agriculture and fishing. "We may have customers as early as next year," he says.
Bye is tight-lipped about financing for his company, but says it completed a Series C round for $5 million earlier in 2018 and is financially sound.
Challenges: "I would say the main challenges are transitioning into the next phase," Bye says. That includes making "production-conforming prototypes. Those finish the process of the research and development we've been on for many years. Our challenge, our tasks in the coming weeks and months are the final steps of the world's first electric certified airplane.
Opportunities: "There is a very, very great need for new pilots for airlines," says Bye. "Boeing [in its 2018 Pilot & Technician Outlook] says 790,000 new pilots will be needed over the next 20 years, double what it is now. That's a very big number. There is an opportunity to build the training aircraft. This very great increase in the number of pilots also increases demand for what I make. Our initial focus is this training market."
Needs: Bye says the biggest need now is to get FAA certification for the company's electric aircraft, then the sky's the limit.