More Electric, All-Electric Aircraft: Overview & Opportunities for the Harness Industry
For years, futurists and engineers have dreamed of all-electric aircraft (AEA) taking to the sky with passengers. While no solution is in sight to replace fossil fuels on commercial airliners, there are some all-electric aircraft flying that promise to fill some unique roles. Many more such aircraft are on the way.
What is coming soon to an airliner near you is an effort to replace traditional hydraulic, pneumatic and mechanical systems with electrical actuators. This step in the electric evolution of systems is referred to as more-electric aircraft (MEA).
Wiring Harness News chatted with Michael Traskos, President of Lectromec, to get a better understanding of MEA and AEA, and help focus harness manufacturers towards current and future opportunities with both.
More Electric Aircraft
The current $1.5 B MEA market is highlighted by technological advancements in power electronics, fault-tolerant architecture, electro-hydrostatic actuators, flight control systems, high-density electric motors and power generation/conversion systems. The market is projected to reach $3.3 B by 2025. “For 80 years, you had a way of building aircraft where a combination of hydraulics and pneumatics actuated flight controls and landing gear,” Mike instructed. “Now you can get enough power through the electrical system so that those systems can actually be controlled by electronic actuators.”
Mike pointed out that each engine on a 787 has two 250k VA generators. Together, the powerplants produce 1.2 MW of power generating capabilities, in addition to providing the thrust to propel the aircraft. That’s enough to power about 1000 homes. “Before, you had a lot less power, so you relied on other systems to handle heavy requirements.” He maintains this is all being made possible through increased engine efficiency combined with enhanced reliability through technological advancements in wiring systems. “With MEA, if you can remove the hydraulic system and all of its components. That’s going to reduce the complexity of the aircraft; lowering maintenance costs while reducing the weight of the aircraft,” Mike assured.
As far as opportunities in the MEA arena for harness manufacturers, Mike pointed to the obvious OEMs like Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, Gulfstream, Embraer and their downstream partners like Safran and L3. He does see some low-lying fruit with companies doing VIP and standard modifications for aircraft. Much of this work involves replacing legacy systems with enhanced electrification for the customers comfort and convenience as these aircraft are transformed. “If your changing things like entertainment systems, it’s all wires and cables, and those systems need to be created, verified and done well to meet those aftermarket needs.” He indicated there are dozens, or even hundreds of such companies around the world. Some good search terms for finding companies in this category would be: Aircraft Modification and Completion, Aircraft VIP Modifications, Aircraft Conversion Center or Aircraft Refurbishment Center.
All Electric Aircraft
Mike gets a chuckle when he discusses his role in AEA development. Ten years ago, he argued the absurdity of such an idea. “You’re going to put all this technology into the aircraft and you’re going to create all these new maintenance problems, because nobody cares about the wire to begin with,” was his edict back then. But things have changed, and companies like Lectomec have elevated Electrical Wiring Interconnect Systems (EWIS) to a much higher status. “I mocked it (AEA) relentlessly for so long, and now I’m apparently the expert in terms of high-voltage requirements for these types of vehicles,” he confessed.
There are currently many electric aircraft flying. They tend to fill two niches – the short haul/limited passenger and piloted urban air mobility realms. Pipistrel, a Slovenian light aircraft manufacturer, is producing the first type-certified aircraft with an electric engine, the Pipistrel Velis. It was certified in June of 2020, carries two passengers, and is designed predominantly to be a training aircraft. Magnix, an electric aircraft motor manufacturer headquartered in Everett WA, is test flying a Cessna 208 Caravan fitted with its engines.
Joby Aviation, with its corporate headquarters in Marina, CA, has the vision of being the first aerial ride sharing service. The U.S. Air Force designated its first ever eVTOL (electric vertical take-off or landing) to its Agility Prime program (a safety endorsement) when it recognized Joby’s urban mobility vehicle. Uber recently sold its air taxi service to Joby. “The energy density of batteries is starting to reach the point where it is now viable for future commercial aircraft designs, and certainly these piloted urban air mobility vehicles,” Mike detailed.
Other companies to watch are Israel based Eviation (164 suppliers from 21 countries), Los Angeles based Ampaire, Denver’s Bye Aerospace, and Bothell WA based Zunum Aero, who just received funding from Boeing and JetBlue to build a 12-seat hybrid electric plane.
A lot of these companies are Silicon Valley startups with engineers and experts from automotive electric vehicle backgrounds. “There are probably about 300 companies that are working in the air mobility arena alone,” Mike detailed, “but there will probably be about 20 or so on the other side when everything settles down.” He compares the current status of this segment to the VLJ (very light jet) aircraft market. “If you go back 20 years, jet technology had come to the point where you could throw a jet engine on a four to six passenger aircraft and have a commercially viable product. Consequently, about 30 companies entered that market with basically Honda and Cessna and Cirrus coming out the other side,” he chronicled. Still, there is an opportunity to help those companies that may eventually fall out, or be consolidated, with profitable prototype harnesses now.
We asked Mike about the FAAs involvement. He indicated that the FAA has been funding research into this area for more than a decade. They have supported a variety of energy storage and energy generation projects. From a regulatory perspective, much of the same regulations are applicable. An AEA may have more batteries and a more complicated battery system, but the regulations on energy storage are mostly the same. It is incumbent on the applicant to verify system safety.
Whether it’s a more-electric 737, or an all-electric commuter or urban mobility aircraft, they all have one thing in common according to Mike. “All of them are going to need reliable high voltage wiring systems in order to get the power from storage to propulsion.” Where commercial airplanes would historically use 115 to 230 volts, some of these projects are using up to 30,000 volts. “And in order to make sure you don’t have cables that are a foot in diameter, you’re going to need to ramp up the voltage,” he stressed.
Visit the blog section of www.lectromec.com for more insightful information on MEA, AEA, and EWIS in general.