Zunum Aero, a company backed by funding from Boeing HorizonX and JetBlue’s tech venture arm, has revealed its plans to create a hybrid electric aircraft designed for regional flights with plans to fly by 2020. The aircraft would have a range of around 700 miles at launch, and the plan is to get that up to over 1,000 miles by 2030, which means it could service many popular commuter routes in the U.S., potentially.
The Zunum Aero plane is designed around the idea that by routing more traffic to regional hub airports, and providing much lower operating costs for smaller craft with between 10 and 50 seats that do short-haul trips, between locations like L.A. and Silicon Valley, air travel can become much more efficient and convenient for commuters. Zunum says that air travel between hubs as an alternative to slower options like overland rail and highways hasn’t really gotten any better in the last 50 years, but it hopes to change the economics with its electric drive technology.
The use of electric drive systems will help Zunum Aero achieve hard targets including a 40 percent decrease in the overall travel time between spots on busy commuter corridors, or by up to 80 percent on routes that have less traffic. Costs will be reduced by between 40 to 80 percent, too, which could accommodate a corresponding decline in fares. Even with the hybrid tech, the planes will result in 80 percent decreased emissions vs. purely gas-powered regional jets, with the ultimate aim of working on 100 percent battery power with zero emissions once battery density capability catches up.
Finally, Zunum Aero promises a 75 percent drop in community noise, which could dramatically increase both the hours of operation for smaller regional airports, and the willingness of communities to allow the existence of hubs to begin with, and larger planes with higher seating capacity on existing routes.
In addition to funding from Boeing and JetBlue, Zunum has a team that includes a leader from a previous NASA-backed project on developing electric drives for airliners, and a long-term partnership in place for research on electric systems power optimization with the University of Illinois. It’s also been in close contact with the FAA since 2014 to work on certification standards for electric aircraft, so it’s up to date on the regulatory environment, too, and is helping shape what that looks like.
Cheap, quiet, environment-friendly air travel sounds like a dream, but let’s hope this is a dream that becomes reality in the timeframe Zunum is targeting.