Delhi Engineer Making Hybrid Planes

Ashish Kumar, CEO and founder of Kirkland (Washington)-based Zunum Aero, and a mechanical engineer from IIT, Delhi, is all set to develop hybrid planes in the US and hopes to sell the same in India for about 1,100-km-long regional flights by early 2020s.

Zunum Aero, which is three years into development, is a start-up backed by Boeing and JetBlue. The regional hybrid-electric aircraft is being developed with the backing from Boeing’s HorizonX innovation cell and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

“Our planes will be way cheaper for airlines to operate. They will not go as high as commercial aircraft due to the distances they will be covering. While they will be slower than other planes, their ability to land at airstrips closer to final destination will significantly reduce door-to-door time for flyers,” said Kumar.

Zunum Aero

Zunum is developing technologies to create a regional electric air network. This electric air network will act as an affordable alternative to highways and high-speed rail. The company has a long-term partnership with the Centre for Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems, a National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored research centre at the University of Illinois, along with collaborations with many leading universities and government labs.

Zunum has been working with the United States Federal Aviation Authority since 2014 to drive development of certification standards for electric aircraft, a complete set of which is expected by 2018. The first electrics are likely to become certified in 2020.

The Hybrid Plane

The hybrid planes, unlike the fuel-guzzling planes, will fly on electricity. Hybrid propulsion is an industry-changing solution, which will enable mid-sized aircraft on regional routes to have better cost efficiencies than airliners, and also a high-speed alternative to other modes of transport.

The hybrid planes that Zunum plans to develop have the following features:

  • The planes will have 10-to-50 seats.
  • Initially, on the launching of the hybrid planes, they will be able to cover 700 miles.
  • By 2030, they will cover more than a 1,000 miles.
  • Door-to-door travel time on busy corridors will be cut by 40 percent.
  • Travel time on the less trafficked corridors will be cut by 80 percent.
  • There will be a sharp reduction in operating costs and thus, the ticket prices will be anywhere between 40-80 percent lesser than the current fares.
  • Emissions will be cut by 80 percent and will even fall to zero over time, as battery densities improve.
  • Community noise will be lesser by 75 percent and thus, access to smaller airports will be possible round the clock.

The Growing Interest in Hybrid Planes

Hybrid planes are fast gaining interest with many leading companies joining in the race to develop their own:

  • In 2015, Langley Research Centre’s (NASA’s field centre) researchers successfully flew a 10-engine electric plane.
  • Aurora Flight Sciences and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are developing an experimental plane, XV-24A LightningStrike VTOL.
  • Zee Aero is also in the process of developing its own electric hybrid plane.
  • Airbus is working on a hybrid commercial plane through its E-Fan project.

The Effect of Hybrid Planes on Commercial Airlines

Zunum is certain to disrupt the airline industry when it will introduce its hybrid plane. Buses, passenger trains, even taxis and car services used for shorter distances will take a hit with the introduction of the hybrid planes.