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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Electric aviation?

23 November 2021

I just watched a video published by Rolls Royce.

We all know Rolls Royce. That name has, for decades, been associated with high quality engineering both on land and in the air.

The Rolls Royce Merlin engine was a key component in the Battle of Britain and its outstanding performance, durability and reliability allowed the RAF to beat the snot out of the Luffwaffe and prevail in what some believed was an unwinnable war.

Rolls Royce are still a big name in aviation, making some of the leading gas turbine engines used in airline transport today -- albeit with a few mis-steps from time to time.

The video I watched today however, although featuring a very fast aircraft, was completely devoid of gas turbine engines or any form of fossil-fuel consumption.

Rolls Royce are crowing about a new aviation record they have just set with their electric-powered aircraft, the Spirit of Innovation.

For those who haven't seen this video, I present it to you below:

It has to be admitted that it's a pretty slick looking machine, although the orchestral soundtrack is likely included to disguise the fact that it's missing the beautiful tones of a screaming V12 Merlin due to its electric motor. Think of the real sound as something more like a Dyson on steroids.

This press release provides more background and technical information on the aircraft.

A 500HP electric motor provides the motive force that, just last week week, thrust it to 387 miles per hour (623 Km/H).

Now that's impressive for an electric-powered aircraft but it's peanuts compared to the Spitfile F Mk 24 which had a maximum speed of 454mph (732Km/H) so although electric power "can" be used for aircraft, I think it has a way to go before it delivers the same absolute performance and endurance as ICE.

And... therein lies the problem with electrified aircraft.

Right now, even the best lithium batteries simply do not provide enough energy density (either by weight or volume) to make electrified flight truly competitive with fosil-fueled craft.

Although there are a growing number of aircraft coming onto the market with electric power, they do tend to be suited to "edge case" operations, such as pilot training or short-distance flights.

With no dramatically game-changing new battery tech even close to commercialisation, this situation is unlikely to change for some time -- so don't hold your breath waiting for an electric-powered international passsenger aircraft to appear any time soon.

However, this is bound to happen eventually, just not in *my* lifetime I suspect.

Now, for something related and quite interesting (IMHO)... *model* aircraft are leading the way when it comes to electrified flight. In a very few short years, electric-motors have replaced ICE engines in the vast majority of models.

Fuels such as the blend of methanol, nitromethane and lubricant traditionally used to power those noisy glow-plug engines have been replaced by silent chargers that push a surprising number of watt/hours into lithium-polymer batteries at most flying fields today.

The bitter irony of this is that there are now significantly more model-fires as a result of electric power than we ever saw while using volatile (and potentially explosive) hydrocarbon fuels.

And to show just how advanced electric model aircraft have become, a new world speed record was set by an electric model just this week at 509Km/H -- that's not too far from the record Rolls Royce just anounced. Suffice to say that the amount RR spent on setting their record was *significantly* more than the cash that Rupert White in the UK forked out to build his RC model.

So, once again, model fliers lead manned aviation into the future. So sad that overbearing regulation and age-restrictions are turning increasing numbers away from this hobby. I expect that in a few years' time, the aviation industry will find they're running out of talent due to the lack of flow-on that the hobby has generated to date.

Yes, the insane are still running the assylum at the FAA, CAA, CASA, and other aviation regulators around the world.

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