Explained: What we know of the largest electric powered flight expected today

In a breakthrough for electric flight technology, a 750-horsepower electric engine made by MagniX, an Australian electric motor manufacturer, will power a Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft to fly for an expected 20-30 minutes over Washington state. This will be the largest aircraft ever to fly on electric power.

In December last year, an engine from the same company powered a seaplane in Vancouver, Canada, in what was described as the “world’s first” 100 per cent electric flight.

The retrofitted Caravan plane, which can carry nine passengers, is expected to take off at 8 am Pacific time (8:30 pm in India) on May 28, and will fly at a speed of 183 kmph, as per a Guardian report. However, for its first journey, a test pilot will fly the plane alone.

The plane selected, a Cessna 208 Caravan, is a popular utility aircraft around the world since the 1980s, with over 2,600 currently being operated for commuter airlines, air cargo, VIP transport, flight training, and humanitarian missions. MagniX aims at commercial operations over a 100-mile range by 2021, and hopes retrofitting its engine to a Caravan would speed up regulatory approvals.

According to a CNBC report, such electric flights could require significantly less maintenance compared to fuel-based aircraft, and could lead to short-distance flights becoming cheaper, thus helping make it more viable for airlines to fly to remote locations.

Apart from MagniX, several companies are involved in making electric flights a reality. The ride-sharing company Uber has announced air taxis to fly as early as 2023. Major industry players such as Airbus and Rolls Royce, a number of startups, as well as the space agency NASA are involved in developing electric flight technologies.

Yet, despite the promise shown by short-range electric flights, several more years of development is expected for powering long-distance journeys. A major obstacle in this process is battery technology, with the weight of the battery being a major challenge.

The aviation sector is a fast-growing source of carbon emissions, and significantly contributes to climate change. According to the World Wildlife Federation, unregulated carbon pollution from aviation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. If the entire sector is considered as a country, it would be among the 10 most polluting nations on the planet.

By 2050, the aviation industry is expected to cater to 16 billion passengers, up from 2.4 billion in 2010. If the sector solely relies on conventional technologies, emissions would triple by 2050.

Making the aviation sector eco-friendly is an important step for meeting the 2016 Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting the increase in global temperatures to below 2 deg Celsius, and pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 deg Celsius.

Environmental activism has already impacted the popularity of air travel as a mode of transport. According to a UBS bank study from October last year, campaigns such as those by Greta Thunberg and the Swedish concept of “flygskam” or “flight shaming” are expected to cause people to cut down on their flying habits in the US and Europe.

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