OSHKOSH, Wis. — Look, up in the sky: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s — well, yes, it could be a plane, an electric one, in the near future.
The only holdup is finding a long enough cord. Just kidding, because it’s just a matter of finding a light enough Energizer Bunny to get it off the ground.
New designs for electric aircraft were unveiled at the Experimental Aircraft Association's recent AirVenture show in Wisconsin. Although plans for electric-powered passenger planes are still way in the future, battery-powered sport airplanes and small helicopters could be on the market in the next few years.
John Monnett, the founder of Sonex Aircraft, gets excited each time he demonstrates the capabilities of his new, experimental WAIEX aircraft.
It looks like a small plane. It feels like a small plane, but it doesn't sound like a small plane. That's because this version of the WAIEX uses batteries instead of an internal combustion engine.
"We wanted to stimulate thought about electric airplanes, and this is really the culmination of that," Monnett said. "It's ready to fly. It's a completely autonomous electric airplane now, meaning that it has its own electronics battery and motor."
The battery-powered WAIEX is the product of the Sonex e-flight initiative. The company launched the program in 2006 to promote the development of alternative energy sources for aircraft.
Craig Willan, a flight engineer who has closely monitored the development of electric-powered aircraft, said, "We are faced today with what I believe is a watershed event."
"What is electric mobility going to give us? Not only on the ground but in the air? The sky's the limit," he said. "It's a clean, renewable, highly efficient form of propulsion."
Sikorsky Engineer Jonathan Hartman agrees, saying: "Electric propulsion has a lot of benefits over internal combustion engines. It's quieter, it has less vibration, its inherently less complex which drives down costs, and it's easier to operate."
Hartman is part of a team at Sikorsky Aircraft working on Project Firefly, a single-rotor, battery-powered helicopter made by US Hybrid.
"The power source for the aircraft are the two battery packs you see on either side, which are lithium ion batteries which are similar to what you find in our laptops, only custom made for us for this application," Hartman said.
The same factor that has propelled the push for battery-powered and hybrid cars also is fueling efforts to develop battery-powered planes.
The wide swing in fuel prices made Sikorsky think about an alternative, he said.
"Rotor craft specifically play a critical role for both military and commercial applications," he said. "And that role could be threatened by shortages in fuel or spiraling fuel costs."
But the very thing that drives electric powered aircraft is also the biggest hurdle: Batteries are bulky and heavy, and planes and helicopters need to be light. The major innovation ahead is making those batteries lighter and smaller.
Hartman thinks Sikorsky has found a solution. Although Project Firefly is still grounded, he expects manned flight tests to begin soon.
"This can fly, and will fly," he said. "And we're looking forward to doing so when ground tests end, which we anticipate for later this year."
The Sonex and Sikorsky projects are two examples in a growing field of innovation in electric powered flight — most in their infancy.
Lifting the technology to commercial air travel is a dream far in the future, experts say.