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Rolls-Royce Retrenches
  • 11 Mar 2024 05:48 PM
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Rolls-Royce Retrenches

By Robert W. Moorman
Vertiflite, Mar/Apr 2024

The announced sale of its electrical unit to an as-yet-unknown buyer is but one part of the reorganization effort at the iconic engine company founded in 1906.

How are things at Rolls-Royce (RR) presently? Depends on whom you ask. New CEO Tufan Erginbilgiç told the Financial Times in May 2023 that the giant engine company has for years been “grossly mismanaged.”

Those are strong words from the new leader, whose challenging mission extends well beyond cleaning up the balance sheet.

Since arriving, the former BP executive laid off hundreds of employees, brought in new managers to return the company to profitability through its core businesses and announced plans to sell its Rolls-Royce Electrical unit, formed by combining its electric aviation business with the eAircraft unit of Siemens, which it purchased from the German technology conglomerate in 2019.

Rolls-Royce is selling its recently acquired Electrical business unit to bail out its cash crunch. (RR photos except where noted)

The sale of the electric division will help reduce RR’s debt and raise up to $1.9B over the next five years, said the company. Specifically, the electrical propulsion unit for the urban air mobility (UAM) and the regional air mobility (RAM) markets are expectedly part of the sale.

As this article was being developed, an as-yet-unnamed buyer had been found, according to various reports (which Vertiflite could not confirm). Rolls-Royce Group declined to provide any details of the sale. Whether RR Electrical’s division offices in Hungary, UK, US, Norway, Singapore and Germany are part of the sale remains unknown.

Honeywell, which has made strong inroads into the eVTOL sector lately, is not the buyer, according to sources close to the Phoenix, Arizona-based company. Some aerospace analysts polled by Vertiflite favor a European buyer from a regulatory perspective. Safran is thought to be a possible candidate, as is Airbus, by some observers, though this remains conjecture.

Siemens/Rolls-Royce Electrical provided the propulsion system for the original uncrewed Airbus CityAirbus electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) demonstrator. However, Rolls-Royce is not part of the follow-on CityAirbus NextGen program.

Despite some sensational media claims to the contrary, Rolls-Royce’s decision to sell its electric unit will have little effect on the evolving eVTOL sector, according to industry experts. Yet, it remains to be seen if the sale will affect Rolls-Royce’s various partnerships, including one with Vertical Aerospace, which is developing the four-passenger-plus-pilot VX4 eVTOL aircraft. Rolls-Royce is producing the motors for the VX4 model bound for certification. Both Rolls-Royce and Vertical Aerospace state unequivocally that their partnership remains solid (see sidebar, "A Key Partnership").

The Rolls-Royce and Vertical Aerospace partnership is benefiting from an $18M (£14.3M) portion of $136M (£108M) investment grant through the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) program to support electric and hydrogen technology to power future aircraft.

Aerospace analysts who have followed Rolls-Royce for years are not surprised by the sale of its Electrical unit.

“Rolls-Royce wants to save cash now on development, and the electric power products are not close to generating revenue in the near term,” offered Douglas Royce, senior aircraft/engine analyst with Forecast International, an aerospace consultancy. “I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.”

As to the bigger turnaround challenge facing Rolls-Royce, Glenn McDonald, principal with AeroDynamic Advisory, an aerospace consultancy, offered the following observation: “It’s no secret that [Rolls-Royce] has had tough times over the last few years. Even pre-Covid, there were quality control and reliability issues as well as costly redesigns. That coupled with Covid disproportionately impacted the wide body market,” of which Rolls-Royce is a major player.

Airbus replaced the stickers on its CityAirbus electric motors to the “RR” logo after Siemens sold its electrical business to Rolls-Royce in 2019. (VFS photo)

Focusing on revitalizing the core business makes sense. McDonald added, “I don’t think the sale of the Electrical is a bad move for Rolls-Royce. They have to right the ship in the near term. It doesn’t preclude them from being involved in alternative propulsion systems.”

That point was reinforced during a recent interview with Rolls-Royce Electrical Customer Director Matheu Parr. “The intent of the Rolls-Royce Group is to exit the partnership for the advanced air mobility market, but retain the hybrid propulsion systems capability within the Group. Rolls-Royce remains committed to investment into electrification” for civil and military fixed-wing rotorcraft, he said.

The company continues to invest in the development and application of electrical technology within its core Defense, Civil Aerospace and Power Systems divisions.

While the fate of the Electrical division remains unknown, there are propulsion-related developments within the unit worth noting.

Parr mapped out alternative energy related programs that remain within the Rolls-Royce Group, which includes most of the military and civil jet engine work, including hydrogen turbofans.

Rolls-Royce’s offering to the helicopter market is the hybrid New Small Engine (NSE), based on the stalwart M250 engine, which will continue to be sold to customers. “We recognized that the aircraft requirements would demand more than the M250 could offer. So, we launched the New Small Engine,” said Parr. While offering “clear application” for helicopters, the NSE provides opportunities for other aircraft, he added.

Rolls-Royce’s NSE gas turbine, which combines the company’s electrical and gas turbine development technologies, completed its first burn as part of the development of a lightweight turbogenerator for hybrid-electric aircraft applications. The turbogenerator can be used in serial or hybrid applications and can recharge batteries and energy to electrical propulsion units directly. The turbogenerator system also has commuter and regional aircraft applications up to 19 seats.

In 2023, the company ran NSE up to idle on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), and plans are to run high-speed tests within the first quarter of 2024. The size and power of the NSE has applications within the civil and military sectors. At this stage, the NSE is not yet a product, but a test vehicle, said Parr.

Installation of Rolls-Royce motors in the VX4. (Vertical Aerospace graphic)

In parallel, Rolls-Royce is working on a European Union (EU) funded Hybrid Electric propulsion system for regional AiRcrafT (HE-ART) propulsion program together with Airbus, ATR, Leonardo, Safran and others to determine the benefit of parallel hybrid solutions in regional aircraft.

The goal of the HE-ART program is to validate the viability of a hybrid-electric thermal turboprop on a ground test demonstrator, which includes a turboprop engine from one of the partners, an advanced electric drivetrain and propeller.

Tests will involve the turbine engine, modular hybrid gearbox, electric motor and power electronics, propeller, nacelle and heat exchanger. Ground-based testing will occur in 2024–2025, followed by flight tests.

Rolls-Royce continues its long-standing research program with regional airline Widerøe on the development of zero-emissions aircraft. The program is part of the airline’s goal to electrify its legacy regional fleet by 2030. This project predates Rolls-Royce’s acquisition of Siemens’ electrical business, and it’s unclear if this project to be retained or sold.

In February 2022, Rolls-Royce, Embraer and Widerøe announced plans to study zero-emissions regional aircraft. The study covered a range of applications for new propulsion technologies, including all electric, hydrogen fuel cell or hydrogen-fueled gas turbine powered aircraft. The 12-month study has concluded, but additional research on zero-emission technologies is likely.

Widerøe Zero is a program that considers the regulatory, commercial and financing challenges of moving zero-emissions aircraft into revenue service.

RR Electrical has successfully tested its motor demonstrator for UAM. The direct drive, air-cooled electric motor employs several technology solutions and modular power inverters to reduce system complexity, cost and weight to deliver “the highest possible torque density,” according to a Rolls-Royce statement.

Rolls-Royce Electrical Customer Director Matheu Parr.

The propulsion unit was tested at Rolls-Royce’s test facilities in Munich, Germany. “Through our active tests, the team was able to demonstrate active operation with full power and torque, validating our design assumptions.”

The first motor demonstrator for the commuter/regional aircraft market was assembled and bench tested in Trondheim, Norway, initially. These passive tests will be followed by rigorous tests to validate design assumptions and improve future motors. The motor is a 320-kW direct-drive electric unit designed specifically for commuter air service.

“The motor’s air-cooling system helps reduce the weight and complexity of the design while its four-electric-lane architecture makes its safer and more fault resistant,” stated Rolls-Royce.

Rolls-Royce Electrical continues testing its lift motor for eVTOL aircraft, which involves Eve Air Mobility’s full-scale technology demonstrator. Rolls-Royce plans to build a full-scale prototype, and then conduct first flight sometime in 2024. The company is under contract to deliver several lift motors to Eve, a subsidiary of Embraer.

Noteworthy was Rolls-Royce’s work with Italian aircraft manufacturer Tecnam to create the H3PS hybrid-electric aircraft. The H3PS technology demonstrator aircraft, which first flew in December 2021, was a parallel hybrid-electric powertrain fitted into a modified four-seat Tecnam P2010 aircraft, powered by a 138-shp (104-kW) Rotax 915 IS engine coupled with a 30-kW Rolls-Royce electric motor.

Though now ended, the Tecnam project “introduces advanced technology for a smaller power class that is scalable for larger general aviation aircraft,” said Rolls-Royce. It also provided a blueprint to reduce fuel consumption and extend the range of general aircraft of varying sizes.

Installation of a 150-kW electric propulsion unit under design.

In November 2021, Rolls-Royce flew an all-electric racing plane called ACCEL (Accelerating the Electrification of Flight) to a top speed of 345.4 mph (555.9 km/h), which became the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft. Rolls-Royce now is taking lessonslearned from the H3PS demonstrator, plus its innovations on the ACCEL and CityAirbus demonstrators, to advance its air mobility portfolio.

In other areas, Rolls-Royce remains committed to “developing our hydrogen capability in partnership with easyJet.” Last year, the company ran an aero engine on hydrogen power. Plans are to ground-test a higher thrust hydrogen-powered engine in 2025, followed by flight tests. The company remains on track to power a mid-sized aircraft on hydrogen by the mid-2030s in partnership with easyJet.

The hydrogen activity is expected to remain part of Rolls-Royce’s civil aerospace business.

In September 2023, Rolls-Royce ran tests on a Pearl 700 engine, using a 100% hydrogen fuel mix at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne. In 2022, Rolls-Royce and easyJet ground tested the world’s first modern aero engine (the AE2100) on green hydrogen at the UK Ministry of Defence test facility in Boscombe Down.

The 320-kW electric motor technology on the test stand.

For military transport, Rolls-Royce is continuing its involvement in the Tempest stealth fighter program to develop advanced propulsion and power systems. The program is being run through the UK government’s Global Combat Air Program. The goal is to harness more electrical power for future fighter aircraft.

Launched in 2014, Rolls-Royce’s task was to provide an electrical starter/generator embedded in the gas turbine engine core. Now known as the Embedded Electrical Starter Generator (E2SG), the compact E2SG is designed to provide more electric power for stealth and fighter aircraft onboard systems and to manage thermal loads. Rolls-Royce is working with partners BAE Systems, Leonardo, MBDA and other defense companies on the effort.

The Tempest program includes the maturing of the electrical technologies that were demonstrated by the E2SG program, said Rolls-Royce. “The ambition is to provide not only the thrust ... but also the electrical power required for all the systems on board and as well as managing thermal loads,” Parr said.

The New Small Engine (NSE) gas turbine for hybrid-electric applications on test.

Rolls-Royce continues its work on SAF for large airliner and business jet applications. According to the US Department of Energy, SAF from non-petroleum feed stocks can be blended with conventional jet fuel (Jet-A) with limits between 10% and 50%, depending on the alternative fuel used. In recent tests, RR proved that its large engines for airliners and business jets can operate safely with up to 100% SAF.

In other developments, Rolls-Royce’s commercial division is one of several partners in the construction of a demonstration plant for the development of synthetic fuels in the Lausitz region of Germany. Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, the State of Brandenburg, and other industrial and government entities are part of the effort.

While the RR Electrical unit will land elsewhere eventually, Rolls-Royce’s future will look a lot like its past with emphasis on core products and continued work on electric-, hybrid- and hydrogen-based propulsion systems.

For more on this subject, see the sidebar, "A Key Partnership"

About the Author

Robert W. Moorman is a freelance writer specializing in various facets of the fixed-wing and rotary-wing air transportation business. With more than 30 years of experience, his writing clients include several of the leading aviation magazines targeting the civil and military markets. 


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