An all-electric version of one of the world’s best-known small utility airplanes hummed through its first flight today at Moses Lake in central Washington state.
Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX and Seattle-based AeroTEC were in charge of the test, which focused on the performance of a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan powered by MagniX’s 750-horsepower Magni500 propulsion system.
During today’s 30-minute-long test flight, the hum of the modified eCaravan’s motor was drowned out by the relative roar of the chase plane’s engine. “The small Cessna is making about double the noise,” MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski said during his webcast commentary.
AeroTEC test pilot Steve Crane took the plane up as high as 2,500 feet during what he termed a “flawless” test flight.
Ganzarski played up the significance of the moment when the plane landed back at Moses Lake’s Grant County International Airport, which commonly serves as an aviation testing ground and storage facility.
“You just witnessed history — the world’s largest all-electric aircraft,” he said.
You could argue with that claim: For example, the Swiss-built Solar Impulse 2 aircraft, which relied entirely on solar-generated electricity and made a round-the-world circuit in 2015-2016, boasted a 236-foot wingspan and weighed 5,060 pounds. In comparison, a Cessna Grand Caravan has a 52-foot wingspan and typically weighs 4,700 pounds.
It’d be harder to argue with the significance of the eCaravan experiment. No one will be taking a plane like Solar Impulse 2 out for a spin anytime soon, but all-electric versions of planes like the nine-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan could someday be a common sight in the skies above.
“Choosing the Cessna Grand Caravan was very intentional,” Ganzarski told GeekWire after the flight. “It was, ‘Let’s find the aircraft that everyone in the world knows, uses and lives, and let’s give it a new lease on life.’ Let’s make it electric. Let’s make it the Tesla of the air, if you will.”
Watch the eCaravan’s first flight in MagniX’s Twitter video:
And we’re not just talking about Cessnas: MagniX, an electric-propulsion venture that has facilities in Australia as well as Redmond, has also converted a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver seaplane to battery power for Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air. That all-electric plane made its first flight last December, and today Ganzarski said flight tests were continuing. Harbour Air aims to have the plane certified by the end of 2021 and will eventually convert its entire fleet to electric power.
Meanwhile, MagniX’s sister company, Israel-based Eviation, is working on a new breed of airplane that’s designed to be all-electric from the ground up. That plane is slated to be tested eventually in Moses Lake as well. One of the propulsion options for Eviation’s nine-passenger Alice aircraft would use three of MagniX’s 375-hp Magni250 electric motors. (MagniX and Eviation are both owned by the Singapore-based Clermont Group, and Ganzarski serves as Eviation’s chairman.)
The eCaravan experiment is part of MagniX’s effort to get the Magni500 system and the Cessna conversion certified by the end of 2021. AeroTEC, which focuses on aerospace testing, engineering and certification, is a key partner in that effort.
MagniX’s strategy is to offer all-electric options for airplanes flying short-haul flights — say, carrying four or five passengers, or a load of cargo, on flights ranging up to 100 miles. That range would gradually increase with improvements in the technology for batteries and propulsion, Ganzarski said.
The current business model calls for AeroTEC to replace an airplane’s conventional power train with MagniX’s all-electric propulsion system. The two companies haven’t yet worked out the pricing for a retrofit, but Ganzarski said it’ll be a money-saver in the long run.
“When you look at the five-year and 10-year lifespans of current, traditional internal-combustion engines on these aircraft, you buy the engine, you install it, you maintain it, you refuel it, you change the oil on it, you do the overhauls on it, etc., etc.,” he said. “We expect that going electric — retrofitting or ‘Magnifying’ the aircraft with a MagniX propulsion system — will reduce that by half.”
Fuel-free flying may well be the biggest selling point. “This 30-minute flight that we did would cost, in a traditional Grand Caravan, around $300 to $400 in fuel,” Ganzarski said. “Here in Moses Lake and Grant County, 80% of the electricity is renewable. You pay a little over 2 cents per kilowatt-hour. So this 30-minute flight would have cost us around $6 in electricity, compared to $300 to $400 in fuel.”
All-electric aviation has other pluses, ranging from quieter operation to zero emissions. AeroTEC CEO Lee Human said reduced maintenance costs are another consideration. “Classic airplane engines require extensive overhauls every 3,000 to 4,000 hours of operation, and for this aircraft, to do that overhaul is a $350,000 to $400,000 job,” he said. “Those costs just came off the table.”
Ganzarski declined to discuss whether MagniX and AeroTEC have received any orders for conversions, except to say that “there’s way more interest than we anticipated at this stage.”
“It’s obvious to everyone that electrification — ‘Magnification,’ I like that — is the future, because the systems we have today for flight, for flying jet engines and systems like that, are just not sustainable,” Human said. “It’s there because there’s no choice. Well, today we have another choice.”
Ganzarski has said electric propulsion could revolutionize aviation the way Tesla is revolutionizing the market for electric cars. But not all revolutions succeed, at least at first: In 2017, a Seattle-area startup called Zunum Aero tried to get a hybrid-electric regional airplane developed with millions of dollars of financial backing from the venture capital arms of Boeing and JetBlue as well as Washington state’s Clean Energy Fund. Last year, the effort fizzled amid financial troubles.
Update for 3:20 p.m. PT May 28: We’ve updated this report with additional comments from Ganzarski and Human.