With the recent news in Wired on a special type of electric vehicle, the electric airplane, I went looking around for more examples where flight has gone electric. The article I also covered on my posterous blog, resulted in some nice discussions on groups like Linked In and I’ve gotten a nice load of suggestions for other applications for electric airplanes, both cases where there is an actual plane currently flying, or really nice suggestions.
The Electra One - Link
First things first to get it clear; electric flight has come, but it is not yet in the phase where we can start replacing our big commercial airliners just yet, unfortunately. There are however a number of efforts for electric flight which have taken the shape of small airplanes and they can carry about 1-2 persons, depending on the actual type you are looking at. Most of these planes have a limited time of flight when you compare them to conventional planes, though to be honest I’m not exactly sure how long the ‘average’ plane can fly. Fact is, the current range of electric airplanes can do a trip of about 1-2 hours. Not extremely short, but it is not getting you very far either.
As to where the current types of airplanes can be put to good use, suggestions range from flight schools, commercial use with a banner-towing service or anything that involves a person that needs to have a good overview of an area (traffic, housing, police, emergency).
A sailplane, fitted with thin film PV could recharge nicely up in the air - Link
Another topic that I found interesting and was suggested in the Linked In groups, was the field of sailplanes. In some cases sailplanes already have a small engine that can help as an assist to get-home, in case you have drifted too far off, or when there is no thermal column left. To keep the entire sailplane concept sustainable, it would be best to have a sustainable way to launch the sailplane as well. Conventional methods are either behind a plane, using a powered winch, or self powered with a propeller. Obviously the powered winch can be an electric one, but also the tow-plane can be made electric. The only task it is used for is to quickly tow a sailplane into the air, after which it descends back down again to pick up the next sailplane.
The last option for sailplanes is to have an engine strong enough to be used for take-off. The propeller would first be used to launch the sailplane and once in the air and in the thermal column it can retract the blades to increase the aerodynamics. This option seems to be favoured in the discussion groups, as it makes for the most flexible sailplane without requiring a special team on the ground or to travel along with you. It would allow one to go from airstrip to airstrip and recharge on the go, either with thin film PV or with a charge from a landline when landed. There is a large area on top of a hangar waiting to be covered with solar panels!