The Tesla of the Sky is Here
Slice of MIT
Matt Knapp ’95, SM ’96 has found a way to make air travel simultaneously faster, cheaper, and more fuel-efficient. The answer, he says, is electric.
Zunum Aero, where Knapp is chief engineer and co-founder, announced in 2017 the development of a hybrid-electric aircraft for regional mass transit beginning in the early 2020s. The smaller planes—starting with 10 passengers—will be flown through smaller airports without the setback of chaotic, high-traffic terminal lines and delays. These small aircrafts will cut fuel costs by 40-80 percent and will reduce noise levels by 75 percent.
In May 2018, Zunum announced that JetSuite would be the launch customer for Zunum's first aircraft, with plans to add up to 100 Zunum Aero aircraft to its fleet. The aircraft, the first of a planned family of regional platforms, seats up to 12 passengers and is slated for delivery in 2022.
Knapp—who was lead designer on the ATG Javelin light jet, and has consulted across major aircraft equipment manufacturers, NASA, and DARPA—started to explore the possibilities of electric in 2013, quickly realizing the potential to be an energy saver and the capacity for top-notch performance. “The electric motor is a thermodynamically and extremely efficient machine that is not affected by size or altitude, unlike a jet engine. By switching to electric, we change the rules. The whole industry gets much more open to rapid change and innovation.”
For Petek Saracoglu ’09, flight sciences engineer at Zunum and one of their first employees, designing the first hybrid-electric plane means building everything from scratch. "Having been here from the start, the best thing about it is getting to work on everything and just seeing the airplane from the ground up, every part of it and how it’s being designed. It really is such a rare opportunity in aerospace where you can design a clean sheet airplane that doesn’t have any derivitives you’re working off of."
Zumum’s planes will result in a 2-5x reduction in fare as well as a 2-4x reduction in travel time. “The bigger the jet engine is and the longer it spins, the more fuel efficient it gets,” says Knapp. “Flying at short distances with a small engine is terribly inefficient, so regional jets actually cost more than airliners.” Electric, on the other hand, could have the biggest impact on economics in shorter, regional flights at 1,000-mile range.
Zunum operated in stealth for nearly four years to develop a business model and viable prototypes, with funding from the venture capital arms at Boeing and JetBlue Technology Ventures. Although the early 2020s may seem too soon to scale up, Knapp says it’s still realistic because they’re working with mostly existing technology and infrastructure. Zunum’s airplanes can be flown by current pilots with minimal re-training and can make better use of the approximately 13,000 small airports in this country of which 4,500 are capable of handling commercial traffic.
The safety factor is a critical upgrade, says Knapp. “We have a generator and we have batteries and the airplane can fly on either one. We have propulsion motors which are internally redundant. Our plane looks like a small business jet with two engines but each of those engines has multiple electric motors so it’s really like flying a four engine as opposed to a two engine airplane. Also, electric machines simply have less wear and tear than something that has to have combustion and high temperatures.”
Another game-changer for Knapp and other supporters is the environmental benefit. “We are really going to be able to make a dent in the emissions from aviation, which is an area that a lot of people have given up on and said it’s just too hard. The data shows that 40 percent of emissions from air travel are under 1,000 miles. We will be able to fill a lot of those flights by 2030.”
Knapp says the fuel efficiency of these hybrid planes will even beat out cars, an alternative for the short regional distances. “Our airplane flying from the bay area to Santa Barbara with a standard passenger load use less total kilowatts per passenger than driving there in a Tesla Model S.”