Zunum Aero bets on hybrid electric engines for its small commuter jet

The traditional aviation industry typically moves rather slowly, but over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of upstarts that are challenging the status quo both in the general and commercial aviation business. One of those is Zunum Aero, which is looking to produce a small hybrid electric-powered commuter plane for six to 12 […]

The traditional aviation industry typically moves rather slowly, but over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of upstarts that are challenging the status quo both in the general and commercial aviation business. One of those is Zunum Aero, which is looking to produce a small hybrid electric-powered commuter plane for six to 12 passengers, with plans to launch its first plane, the ZA10, in the early 2020s.

As Zunum today announced, it has chosen Safran’s twin-spool Ardiden 3Z light helicopter engine as the powerplant for its first planes. While you have probably never heard of Safran, the company is one of the biggest suppliers of engines for turbine helicopters, and chances are that if you see one in the air, it’s probably powered by a Safran engine.

“The Ardiden 3Z represents a very powerful complement to the ZA10 because of its exceptional performance, along with low operating and maintenance costs,” said Safran’s head of OEM sales Florent Chauvancy. “This announcement marks a new step forward in demonstrating Safran’s ability to offer hybrid propulsive solutions for tomorrow’s mobility solutions.”

As Zunum chief engineer Matt Knapp told me, the company always believes that hybrid engines were the way to go — at least for the foreseeable future. The planes, however, can be converted to a pure electric powertrain if and when batteries reach enough energy density to make this an option. Right now, the only way to offer a plane that can cover the kind of distance between say San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, is to opt for this hybrid solution. Planes that solely rely on battery power simply aren’t a viable option for this kind of mission. Knapp believes that battery power alone would get the plane to about 500 miles, which isn’t bad, but less than most airlines would require.

The promise is that the hybrid powertrain will still reduce emissions by 80 percent and that airlines can save 40 to 80 percent per short-haul flight. Indeed, the company promises costs of 8 cents per passenger mile. Currently, the average for most of the major U.S. airlines is significantly more than that, even with their long-haul operations in the mix. For regional carriers, it’s even higher than that.

The new propulsion system will offer a peak performance of the equivalent of 1,300 horsepower, which should get the plane to a cruise speed of 340 miles per hour. During cruise, which uses far less power than the initial climb, the plane can go all-electric.

As for the airframe itself, Knapp notes there really isn’t anything all that special about it. “It’s more or less designed for high utilization in a commercial setting,” he said.

Knapp also noted that the plane can be flown by a single pilot, though the FAA would limit those operations to flights with nine seats or fewer. In the long run, though, Knapp actually expects that many new planes will be flying autonomously.

Until then, though, Zunum still has to prove it can build an airplane. For now, the company plans to use the hybrid powertrain on a test aircraft that it recently purchased (an old Aero Commander, for you avgeeks) while it starts working on its airframe.

Zunum Aero bets on hybrid electric engines for its small commuter jet

The traditional aviation industry typically moves rather slowly, but over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of upstarts that are challenging the status quo both in the general and commercial aviation business. One of those is Zunum Aero, which is looking to produce a small hybrid electric-powered commuter plane for six to 12 […]

The traditional aviation industry typically moves rather slowly, but over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of upstarts that are challenging the status quo both in the general and commercial aviation business. One of those is Zunum Aero, which is looking to produce a small hybrid electric-powered commuter plane for six to 12 passengers, with plans to launch its first plane, the ZA10, in the early 2020s.

As Zunum today announced, it has chosen Safran’s twin-spool Ardiden 3Z light helicopter engine as the powerplant for its first planes. While you have probably never heard of Safran, the company is one of the biggest suppliers of engines for turbine helicopters, and chances are that if you see one in the air, it’s probably powered by a Safran engine.

“The Ardiden 3Z represents a very powerful complement to the ZA10 because of its exceptional performance, along with low operating and maintenance costs,” said Safran’s head of OEM sales Florent Chauvancy. “This announcement marks a new step forward in demonstrating Safran’s ability to offer hybrid propulsive solutions for tomorrow’s mobility solutions.”

As Zunum chief engineer Matt Knapp told me, the company always believes that hybrid engines were the way to go — at least for the foreseeable future. The planes, however, can be converted to a pure electric powertrain if and when batteries reach enough energy density to make this an option. Right now, the only way to offer a plane that can cover the kind of distance between say San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, is to opt for this hybrid solution. Planes that solely rely on battery power simply aren’t a viable option for this kind of mission. Knapp believes that battery power alone would get the plane to about 500 miles, which isn’t bad, but less than most airlines would require.

The promise is that the hybrid powertrain will still reduce emissions by 80 percent and that airlines can save 40 to 80 percent per short-haul flight. Indeed, the company promises costs of 8 cents per passenger mile. Currently, the average for most of the major U.S. airlines is significantly more than that, even with their long-haul operations in the mix. For regional carriers, it’s even higher than that.

The new propulsion system will offer a peak performance of the equivalent of 1,300 horsepower, which should get the plane to a cruise speed of 340 miles per hour. During cruise, which uses far less power than the initial climb, the plane can go all-electric.

As for the airframe itself, Knapp notes there really isn’t anything all that special about it. “It’s more or less designed for high utilization in a commercial setting,” he said.

Knapp also noted that the plane can be flown by a single pilot, though the FAA would limit those operations to flights with nine seats or fewer. In the long run, though, Knapp actually expects that many new planes will be flying autonomously.

Until then, though, Zunum still has to prove it can build an airplane. For now, the company plans to use the hybrid powertrain on a test aircraft that it recently purchased (an old Aero Commander, for you avgeeks) while it starts working on its airframe.

UberAIR to take flight with help from UT Austin and U.S. Army Research Labs

After three months of discussions, Uber Elevate has selected The University of Texas at Austin as its partner alongside the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to develop new rotor technology for vehicles that the company will use in its uberAIR flying taxi network. The news is the latest step in Uber’s plans to get demonstration flights […]

After three months of discussions, Uber Elevate has selected The University of Texas at Austin as its partner alongside the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to develop new rotor technology for vehicles that the company will use in its uberAIR flying taxi network.

The news is the latest step in Uber’s plans to get demonstration flights off the ground in the megalopolises of Dallas Ft. Worth; Los Angeles, and Dubai. The ultimate goal is to have uberAIR services commercially available in those cities by 2023.

To achieve that, Uber has set up some rigorous specifications for its vehicle and the traffic management system used to operate uberAIR, developed in conjunction with several aircraft manufacturers and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Specifically for the vehicle, Uber is requiring a fully electric vertical take-off and landing vehicle that has a cruising speed of 150 to 200 miles per hour; a cruising altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 feet; and a range of up to 60 miles for a single charge.

The company isn’t the only one racing to own the sky taxi space for urban transport. Chinese drone manufacturer Ehang; Aston Martin; Rolls Royce; Audi and Airbus and other, smaller, startup vendors are all trying to make flying vehicles. Ehang has been touting manned test flights of its drone already.

Uber, on the other hand is trying to build out the service in much the same way it did with car hailing so many years ago.

The company actually unveiled its thoughts on air travel and design a few months ago at its Elevate conference.

At UT, a research team led by Professor Jayant Sirohi, one of the country’s experts on unmanned drone technology, VTOL aircraft, and fixed- and rotary-wing elasticity will examine how the efficacy of a new flying technology, which uses two rotor systems stacked on top of one another and rotating in the same direction.

Called co-rotating rotors, the new technology will be tested for its efficiency and noise signature, according to a statement from the university. Preliminary tests have shown the potential for these rotors to work better than other approaches while also improving versatility for an aircraft.

“There’s a lot of things to be done,” said Sirohi. “We are not doing vehicles. we’re doing a specific rotor system on one of the engineering common reference models that Uber has released.”

The reference model is a benchmark for what the aircraft should do in field tests and eventually operations, Sirohi said. “We are pursuing these technologies to see what the gaps are in where we are today and where we need to be,” Sirohi said.