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Electro.Aero Seeks to Power Electric Aviation
  • 03 Jan 2024 01:09 PM
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Electro.Aero Seeks to Power Electric Aviation

By Tom Risen
Vertiflite, Jan/Feb 2024

Advanced air mobility routes require rapid aircraft battery recharging.

Chelsea Ding, Advisor to the Board of Electro.Aero, demonstrated the 80-kW RAPID Charger at Airtec 2022. (All Electro.Aero photos)

Perth-based Electro.Aero Pty Ltd began developing a mobile charging unit for electric aircraft in part because several airframers partnering with the Australian company complained about the same problem: fixed car chargers cannot reach the aircraft, and moving aircraft close enough to recharge between flights was difficult or impossible.

The battery technology firm encountered this problem firsthand in 2018 during a cross-country test flight of its demonstrator aircraft, Electro.Aero co-founder and Innovation Director Joshua Portlock said in an interview. Electro.Aero team members had to drive a truck carrying the battery charger to the landing site of the company’s recently purchased Pipistrel Alpha Electro, the world’s first electric Light Sport Aircraft.

“We actually flew to a field and tried to charge it there, but we found the portability of a charger was a big issue,” Portlock said.

The Pipistrel Alpha Electro was intended to create learnings for the team regarding the day-to-day operation of electric aircraft, and he said Electro.Aero had since been entirely focused on solving the unique problems of electric aircraft charging.

“We thought mobile chargers were a good value-add that other manufacturers hadn’t been thinking about.”

In 2018, Electro.Aero bought and commercially operated pilot training flights with an Alpha Electro battery-powered light sport aircraft built in Slovenia by Textron subsidiary Pipistrel.

Developers of infrastructure for vertiports to land, recharge and maintain electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft face challenges, including a lack of realistic, defined design criteria, but also convenient technologies that would maximize the number of daily flights for a nascent urban air mobility network by rapidly recharging and preparing aircraft.

“Most hangars have limited grid power and don’t have enough power for chargers,” Portlock said.

Electro.Aero also helps supplement airport infrastructure by selling energy storage unit called an AEROCHARGE to recharge aircraft; the units resemble shipping containers and come in both 20-ft (6.1-m) and 40-ft (12.2-m) lengths. These containers can store electricity by recharging from a conventional grid or other sources, such as solar power, Portlock said. They can ease aircraft charging in remote areas “where the grid is insufficient.”

Electro.Aero was the world’s first owner and operator of a production electric aircraft. CEO Richard Charlton stands with the company’s Pipistrel Alpha Electro.

A forthcoming mobile charger could recharge by connecting with either a grid or an AEROCHARGE storage unit. Electro aims to gain certification for commercial use of its mobile charger in 2024 through regulatory agencies in both the US and Europe.

Australian vertiport network company Skyportz and Electro announced a partnership in May, making a nod to the mobile charger project in describing their goal of developing “a vertiport in a box.”

Sales Success

Electro.Aero is already generating revenue through sales of several chargers, and Electro.Aero said it has also received payments from its customers in advance of services or products that are in development.

“Our 7-kW LITE charger is a good all-rounder for hangar charging over night or taking with an electric aircraft to a new airport that lacks charging infrastructure,” Portlock said. “We’ve sold a lot of 80-kW RAPID chargers to larger, five-seat eVTOL customers.”

In 2020, Electro.Aero test flew its Electro Trike battery-propulsion demonstrator aircraft, one of several electric demonstrator aircraft built and co-developed by the company.
The portable 7-kW LITE charger for overnight charging in a hangar or taking onboard to an airport without chargers.

Customers of Electro include Archer Aviation, Jump Aero and Vertical Aerospace, which are each developing eVTOL aircraft, and Ampaire, which is developing hybrid-electric fixed wing aircraft, including conversions of existing conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) turboprop aircraft.

“While many of our customers are waiting for their aircraft to be certified by 2024 or later, we’re still very busy supporting them with chargers and onboard electronics for their aircraft, as well as consulting on various electrical subsystems,” Portlock said.

Unlike Archer and Vertical, Electro.Aero is not publicly traded and thus does not disclose its full financial data. But, he said, “we’ve been doubling our sales every year over the last three years and are investing heavily in bringing new products to market that support our customers’ certification and entry-to-service plans.”

Electro.Aero says that its forthcoming RAPID 240-kW mobile aircraft charger will be the smallest and lightest charger in its power class.

A secondary goal for Electro is to work with international engineering standards body SAE International to encourage standards for aircraft battery chargers, Portlock said. Many startups in the nascent advanced air mobility (AAM) sector are developing bespoke electric battery systems and motors or using a range of charging technologies. Airframers could reduce electric aircraft weight and save propulsion energy by including only hardware designed for direct current (DC) battery charging, he said, adding “you can’t justify the weight” of including converter hardware to also match alternating current (AC) chargers.

“Having standardized chargers at every airport is important to make sure the transition to electric aircraft is seamless,” he said of the potential benefit.

The SAE International’s AE-7D committee for electric aircraft charging and battery standards started by Portlock has spent nearly five years developing the ARP6968 draft standard for light aircraft charging (see “Competing Standards,” Vertiflite, Jan/Feb 2024). This standard is for aircraft charging requirements of less than 500 kW. The SAE committee is now working on AIR7357 for larger aircraft, needing more than 500 kW.

“We’ve also been involved in supporting many other initiatives for standardising battery systems, working closely with the [US Federal Aviation Administration] FAA as well as other organisations and many industry partners,” Portlock said.

A Proud Legacy

Electro.Aero co-founder Josh Portlock holding the company’s charging head, which is compliant with draft SAE standard ARP6968 that he helped develop.

The battery charging firm founded in 2014 has flourished because of battery engineering partnerships, including working with NASA on its X-57 battery-powered electric CTOL testbed aircraft. The X-Plane never flew, but the project gave Electro and other contractors the chance to improve battery packaging and designs to avoid cells from overheating and shutting down (or catching fire).

Australia in the early 2010s became a destination for groups including Google’s Project Wing to test fly autonomous drones and electric aircraft demonstrators, in part through permissive government airspace regulation there. This made it easier for Electro’s team to access an international aerospace community when launching their startup.

Electro.Aero has co-developed several ducted fan eVTOLs with Trek Aerospace, Portlock said, “including several variants of FlyKart that won two stages of the GoFly challenge” (see “GoFly Teams Prepare to Fly Again,” Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2020.)

AEROCHARGE can be charged by grid, generator or solar — as shown here on the Electro.Aero hangar rooftop at Jandakot Airport in Perth, Australia.

Ampaire operated its milestone nine-hour flight from California to Kansas in July 2022 with an Electro charging inlet — compliant with the SAE ARP6968 standard — installed on its hybrid-electric powertrain demonstrator aircraft, which California-based Ampaire modified from a Cessna 337 Skymaster.

In 2018, Electra.Aero bought and operated the first production Alpha Electro battery-powered light sport aircraft, built in Slovenia by Pipistrel, now part of Textron subsidiary eAviation. Electro offered training flights in the two-seater aircraft, which was based on Pipistrel’s Alpha Trainer. Due to the wording of Australian Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) regulations that precluded turbines but did not specify pistons — as with the FAA LSA regulations — Portlock said Electro.Aero gained the first regulatory certificate in the world to commercially operate an electric aircraft.

The Australian battery charging firm aims to be a major supplier for the emerging global market for electric aircraft, with Electro already logging steady sales of rapid battery chargers in Europe and the UK, and its partnerships with US startups. Regulators and companies in nearby Japan have also discussed urban air mobility flights with both Archer and Vertical, which could make Perth-based Electro.Aero an ideal supplier for charging stations on route networks there.

About the Author

Tom Risen is a business journalist in Washington, DC, who has written about space and aviation for publications such as Cirium, Aerospace America and US News & World Report.

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