Long-range, zero-emission flight? California startup flight tests technology to make it possible
San Francisco, April 24, 2023 – California-based startup Magpie Aviation has developed a breakthrough technology that enables long-range, zero-emission flights with current battery technology. It recently completed a key flight testing milestone to demonstrate the world-first approach.
Aviation emissions are a growing concern; if it were a country, the aviation sector would be among the top 10 emitters. To date, there have been no truly zero emission options for commercial flights over 1,000 miles. Batteries and hydrogen lack the energy density of jet fuel, which limits the range of aircraft using them, and the number of passengers or amount of cargo they can carry.
Magpie is addressing these limitations through a modern twist on aerotowing – a century-old operation in aviation, used by recreational gliders and military aircraft. Magpie’s approach works by automatically connecting an electric passenger or cargo aircraft (the “main aircraft”) to an electric “tow aircraft” in the sky; with a safe distance of approximately 1500 ft (500 meters) between them. The tow aircraft, which only carries batteries, can tow the main aircraft at high speeds for around 300 miles per charge; no electrical power is transferred through the line, propulsion is purely mechanical. For longer routes, the tow aircraft can be safely swapped out in the sky. This enables electric aircraft to cover ranges that tackle the bulk of aviation emissions.
“Since an electric plane won’t fly very far on its own, you need a safe, reliable and cost effective way to bring more energy to it while it is in the air. In-flight charging is a possibility, but aerotowing is a much safer and simpler approach” says Magpie CTO Andrew Goessling. “You can think of Magpie as developing a sort of supercharger network for the skies. It is very feasible to build out a network of bases for our tow aircraft to enable 1000-mile and longer electric flights across the US, Europe and other regions, without betting on fundamental changes in battery technology.”
Magpie recently completed a successful flight test program where it demonstrated the world’s first in-air towing reconnections between two aircraft. The tests were crewed by veteran US Air Force and Airbus program test pilots Tim Gardner and Jim Payne. Magpie’s automated technology enabled its two prototype aircraft to connect in the sky repeatedly, and with centimeter-level precision. “The automated connection technology makes life simpler for the pilot. Connecting to the stabilized ‘active hook’ is much easier than ‘probe and drogue’ aerial refueling used in the military, which requires a considerable amount of pilot skill.” says Payne.
Magpie CEO Damon Vander Lind said: “While Magpie is certainly a novel approach to sustainable aviation, it is fundamentally rooted in today’s technology and regulatory procedures. We were able to get our prototypes in the air in less than a year, by keeping our approach simple and focused on the enabling technology. In previous electric aircraft programs we have led, we had to engineer extremely light weight vehicles, which leads to higher costs and longer development timelines, to work within the limitations of batteries. With Magpie, we can leverage existing aircraft platforms and can tackle the range challenge more economically.”
Despite the need for the additional tow aircraft, the Magpie approach is also cost-competitive. It allows airlines to operate large electric aircraft, which can save significantly on their highest costs: fuel and maintenance. These savings approximately balance out the additional cost of towing; towing is kept cheap through simple tow aircraft, and operation from secondary airports, among other factors. This is in line with industry predictions that battery-electric aircraft will be substantially cheaper than sustainable aviation fuel (“SAF”) or hydrogen-powered aircraft. Despite significant investment, SAF still faces scalability issues (current supply accounts for less than 1% of demand) and produces contrails that are a significant part of aviation’s contribution to global warming.
Magpie’s towing technology can scale to a range of different aircraft, from smaller eVTOLs up to single-aisle jets that move the majority of the world’s air passengers. The company is planning to expand testing to more challenging environmental conditions. The company is also partnering with existing suppliers and OEMs in scaling the technology to commercial reality.
Magpie Aviation is a program of record with the US Federal Aviation Administration’s Center for Emerging Concepts and Innovation, and is a member of the European Regions Airlines Association and the EU Commission Alliance for Zero-Emission Aviation.
About Magpie Aviation
Magpie Aviation is enabling long-range, zero-emission flight. The Magpie approach works by towing an electric plane through the sky at high-speeds with a battery-filled tow aircraft. For longer routes, the tow aircraft can be safely swapped out enroute, enabling electric aircraft to cover ranges that tackle the bulk of commercial aviation emissions.
Magpie is already conducting crewed flight tests that demonstrate the safety and reliability of the towing technology. The team brings together experience from Google/Alphabet X, Beta Technologies, Kittyhawk, Textron, the US Air Force, Airbus and Cathay Pacific Airways. Collectively, they have helped to design, test and fly 20 aircraft programs.
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