Technology

Electric aircraft towing concept could mean longer emissions-free flights

Magpie Aviation announced a novel new approach to electric aircraft on Monday. Today’s battery technology (including CATL’s new, more efficient one) severely limits the practicality of zero-emission aircraft, leaving clean energy innovators with two incomplete options: fly a plane full of batteries or one full of people. , but not both. So the California-based startup wants to bring them together, extending the range of the rear plane by hundreds of miles.

Towing aircraft is not a new concept, as military use dates back to World War II, when air tows towed smaller planes carrying troops and supplies. But applying it to the world of green transport is new. Magpie Aviation’s concept uses one or more electric aircraft to act as a tractor aircraft towing a passenger (or cargo) aircraft using a long cable. The towed plane would have enough battery power to take off, land and fly to alternate airports, but not enough to fly the full distance on its own, as reported by AeroTime.

The lead plane would take over most of the traction, and when its battery runs out, it could transfer towing duties to another electric tow plane to extend the range of the trailing plane. Magpie CEO Damon Vander Lind summed up aviation week, “You get towed until your reserve is exhausted in the lead plane, and then you switch to another tow plane.” Although it’s still an impractical regional solution for international or cross-country flights, Vander Lind says it could enable a trip from San Francisco to Seattle, well beyond the subregional distances that battery-powered passenger flights can travel on their own.

Magpie says he conducted successful small-scale tests using a synthetic fiber rope about 330 feet long; the company envisions a later commercial version to use cables nearly a mile long. The startup plans to scale up its testing gradually and believes it could be commercially deployed by 2030. It hopes advances in battery technology will allow it to tow single-aisle airliners eventually. Magpie suggests that the concept, aimed primarily at electric aircraft, could also work with hybrid, hydrogen and standard aircraft in low-power modes. Additionally, the company says it is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) toward certification.

“It seems a little crazy, but we kept coming back to it because we couldn’t find any reason why we couldn’t do it,” Vander Lind said. “While our model shows there is an advantage to making a custom tow plane like this, we gain a huge advantage because the most expensive and critical ‘lead plane’ for passenger and cargo transport has similar requirements to today’s planes. and therefore fits well. to existing platforms in operation and already under development. Remember that if we want to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050, a commercial aircraft has a 30-year lifespan, so we’re already at the point where airlines have to think hard about the operational lifespan of assets. What are you buying today? ”

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