A small tech company aiming to record airspeed



E-NXT has been developed for 3 years

Gloucester Airport is a fairly sleepy place, serving primarily flight training schools and commercial aircraft.

However, a very special aircraft was under construction in the hangar and industrial unit attached to the airfield.

The Electric NXT or E-NXT is a single-seater aircraft developed by Electroflight and aerospace giant Rolls-Royce, which will quickly break the world speed record for electric aircraft by traveling above 480km / h (300mph). I want it. The current record is 342km / h (213mph)...

For Rolls-Royce, this project (called Accel) is part of a broader effort to develop technologies that mitigate the environmental impact of flight.

He has been working with Electroflight at E-NXT for three years, spending £ 6 million ($ 8.3 million; € 7 million) to develop the cutting-edge technology needed for record-breaking execution.

Many of the 20 strong engineering teams working on Electroflight hangers have a motorsport background, and Managing Director Stjohn Youngman is from the sports car industry. For him, the relationship with the performance car was very important when Electroflight approached Rolls-Royce with that idea three years ago.

“In aerospace, electrification was a whole new technology. It’s very difficult to incorporate it from a traditional background.

“But looking at the UK as a whole and our engineering capabilities, we are a world leader in the electrification of niche cars, especially motorsports. Formula E is mostly designed in the UK.

“So we have this pool of talent for people who are engaged in automobiles but will not necessarily consider employment opportunities in the aerospace business. We have to put that talent into the building. Provided a conduit. “

Electro Flight Managing Director, Stjohn Youngman

Stjohn Youngman brings knowledge from the automotive industry to aerospace

However, manufacturing battery-powered aircraft is an even bigger challenge than building battery-powered vehicles. First, the aircraft should drag the battery into the sky and ideally hold it there.

The E-NXT battery system weighs 300 kg, almost half the total weight of the aircraft.

As a result, most of Electroflight’s work is devoted to the development of battery systems, always thinking about the weight-power trade-off.

“There is no free lunch in engineering. You can’t fool physics,” Youngman jokes.

Achieving record speeds puts a serious strain on the battery system.

Many sports cars can generate more than 500 horsepower, but only a short burst is needed.

Electroflight aircraft must maintain almost all of their output during the entire record-breaking run (about 8 minutes).

Even at cruising speed, the battery operates at 60% of its maximum output.

To keep weight down, the entire battery system is housed in a sturdy carbon fiber shell.

Powered by another partner, Oxford-based Yasa, the motor is so powerful that it’s fixed directly to the battery case.

Engineer working on battery system

The battery pack contains three independent battery systems

Inside, there are actually three separate battery packs. This is a safety feature that means that the aircraft will be powered even if one or two packs fail.

These three packs have 6,400 cells, each cell slightly larger than the AA battery used at home, so it’s the same type used in today’s electric vehicles.

The entire battery system is cooled by an elaborate plumbing system that flushes a mixture of water and glycol around the battery to cool it down.

While the current focus is on record-breaking attempts, Electroflight hopes that the engineering know-how it has gathered will make a good start in the aviation battery market.

It’s not a big business at the moment, but governments around the world have promised to make aviation more environmentally friendly, and many electric aircraft are under development.

The battery pack consists of thousands of individual cells

The battery pack consists of thousands of individual cells

In the early days of electric aircraft, cost is a major factor, probably because of charging, and arguably because batteries are likely to need to be replaced frequently when they become old and inefficient. I will.

Electroflight is working on this and plans to set up mass production facilities to reduce prices.

This represents a change in the mindset of the aerospace industry, which is often operated by manufacturing a relatively small number of high-value, high-quality parts.

“It’s pretty unique because aerospace didn’t have to solve this problem so far. Usually, the volume levels of aerospace components are relatively very low,” says Youngman.

“The only way to do this is to use highly autonomous manufacturing technology. This is what cars are already doing.”

Electroflight keeps in mind other innovations, such as switching from cylindrical cells to pouch-shaped cells with advanced internal chemistry, to increase energy density while maintaining good power output.

Battery cell

The pouch may take over from a cylindrical cell

At this time, it’s not clear what future aircraft will look like, or how they will be powered-and batteries are unlikely to be the only answer.

“Batteries are great for releasing energy, but not very good for storing, so you can use the battery alone for short-haul flights and remove all the complexity and confusion of liquid fuels.” Steve Wright, a university aeroelectronics expert, said in western England.

“For longer flights, hydrogen or alternative green fuels will still be needed for a long time.

“This solution is a classic case of what I consider to be a typical 21st century technology. It’s a mashup of different types of machines that engineers never dreamed of 50 years ago, and it’s computer-wise. “It has been adjusted to,” says Dr. Wright.

More technology in business

Meanwhile, returning to Gloucester Airport, Electroflight staff are excited.

Kristine Cirse is a technician working on battery systems.

“It’s amazing that I’m making a battery for this plane … I want to see this plane in the sky and reach a record.”

Follow Business Editor Ben Morris Technology twitter..