Zunum Aero Could Half the Cost of Flying

by PBJ Staff / May 19, 2017

Zunum Aero

In the modern era of crowdsourcing it’s not uncommon for small companies to make headlines, but when the likes of Boeing and JetBlue invest you know there’s something special brewing. That’s exactly what’s happening with Zunum Aero, the little company with big ideas who are looking to revolutionize flying as we know it.

How do they plan to go about enforcing such a monumental task? In short, through the use of an electronic hybrid. In what Forbes have said “could be the Tesla of aircraft”, Zunum Aero is aiming to cut the cost of flying by as much as 50% thanks to hybrid-electric propulsion, which the startup claims can “pave the way to a golden era of fast and affordable electric air travel.” Big words indeed.

80% less flight time

So how powerful will it be? Well, for starters it won’t be small. Words like “hybrid” and “electronic” can conjure images of gutsy little vehicles which give it their all but never have the gusto to match the existing industry leaders. In stark contrast, the Zunum Aero aircraft will seat 10-50 people. Remarkably, it will not just match but improve on current flight times, reducing flights by as much as 80% in some cases. On top of all that, this actually comes at a lower operating cost that the current standard. Three strikes and the old guard is out.

The reduced flying time, in particular, seems to have struck a chord with Zunum Aero CEO Ashish Kumar, who lambasted the industry’s current concentration on a minority of airports and blamed this for the lack of development in terms of flight times.

Zunum Aero

“The shift of the industry to large aircraft and long ranges driven by gas turbines has concentrated almost all air traffic to just two percent of our airports, creating a massive transport gap over regional distances where there is no high-speed alternative,” said Mr. Kumar. “As a result, door-to-door times for most journeys are no better than they were 50 years ago. Hybrid propulsion is an industry-changing solution, enabling mid-sized aircraft on regional routes to have better cost efficiencies than airliners.”

Cheaper short-haul flights

The problem is real, and so is the solution. As it stands, short-haul flights can prove disproportionately expensive simply due to the lack of passengers on-board. The aircraft being proposed by Zunum Aero would reduce the cost of flying massively, which in turn would reduce the cost of the tickets for passengers, and given that the planes seem perfectly poised for such journeys with their 10-50 passenger capacity, it doesn’t seem unrealistic for this to be the norm in the future.

Zunum Aero

This kind of forward-thinking attitude is evident in the design of the aircraft as well as the mind of its CEO. Whilst current models use fuel continually, the Zunum Aero models will only use fuel when explicitly required. This means 80% lower emissions, which will make for remarkable savings in itself. If that wasn’t enough, as time goes by the consumption will reduce even further. Improved battery technology means the aircraft will ultimately end up in a state of zero emission using the same hybrid-electric propulsion favored by NASA.

If you think that battery-based aircraft will never last, think again. Last year the Solar Impulse Team demonstrated how far technology has come when they managed to fly around the world using nothing but solar power. Going around the world was perhaps more of a symbolic gesture than anything else, but the technology behind the achievement is not only real but becoming stronger with every passing year.

Zero emission flights

Zunum Aero

As pollution becomes more of a prominent issue in society as a whole, this hybrid jet comes as a welcome respite. With Zunum Aero claiming that 40% of airline pollution comes directly from regional flights, the offer of an alternative which massively reduces our carbon footprint is an enticing prospect, to say the least.

It’s far from said and done, though. The aircraft still have a number of issues to overcome, as evidenced by none other than the professor behind the design, Kiruba Haran. An electrical engineering professor at UIUC who has been working with NASA on electric-hybrid projects for the past three years, Mr. Hanan was under no illusion regarding the troubled roads that lay ahead.

“Many challenges remain,” said Mr Haran. “The electrical distribution, protection and fault tolerance, airplane integration, thermal management, controls; but these are all being attacked by various groups.”

But the professor was of the opinion that these obstacles would eventually be overcome, and went as far as to make the claim “The electric machines may be the ‘jet engines’ of the 21st century.”

So when can we expect to see the Zunum Aero aircraft in operation? At the moment the aircraft is in “build phase” and meanwhile Zunum Aero are working closely with the FAA to secure the necessary certification required, which won’t be ready until 2018 earliest. After this, there will be several more years of development, with the company estimating planes will be operating in the early 2020s. At first, planes will only be able to cover around 700 miles, but over time the program will be rolled out to travel further and further afield until – if all goes to plan – these hybrids become the norm on all flights up to 1,000 miles.

Whether this will new technology will prove to be the next big thing remains to be seen. With Boeing backing the project, we wouldn’t be surprised to see some big changes in the next decade.

All pictures courtesy of Zunum Aero

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