Surf Air Mobility bets big on hybrid electric caravan

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Surf Air Mobility has committed to purchasing up to 150 Cessna Grand Caravan EX single-engine utility turboprop engines from Textron Aviation and plans to replace their Pratt & Whitney PT6 turbine engines with hybrid electric propulsion systems starting in 2024.

The interim order announced on Tuesday is for 100 Grand Caravan EX and options on 50 others, with deliveries scheduled to begin in the second quarter of 2022. In a statement released by the private airline group, Surf Air Mobility said the transaction was subject to it. . obtain additional funding.

Surf Air Mobility plans to develop a hybrid-electric propulsion system and will apply for an FAA Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) to install the system in its trailer fleet. The powertrain will use a turbo-generator to charge the batteries that power an electric-powered propeller. Surf Air Mobility is still in talks with manufacturers of electric motors, turbo-generators and batteries, according to Sudhin Shahani, CEO of Surf Air Mobility.

Earlier this year, Surf Air Mobility acquired Ampaire, a developer of hybrid electric aircraft, which will lead the technological development of the hybrid-electric Caravan STC. Ampaire demonstrated the Electric EEL, a hybrid-electric conversion of a Cessna 337 Skymaster in which one of the aircraft’s two piston engines is replaced by an electric powertrain. Ampaire also planned to develop hybrid-electric propulsion for the De Havilland Twin Otter and Grand Caravan. The company has yet to file an application with the FAA for the Caravan STC, but it should happen soon, Shahani said.

“We are building on the work that Ampaire has done for three years now,” he said. “We have proven cost and emission reductions of just over 30%. I replace [the PT6] with a lighter combustion turbo-generator, where you get some weight back, then adding the EPU [electronic power unit] and the battery pack, which works in series with the turbo-generator, and wraps it all up with our proprietary control software.

The advantage of hybrid-electric technology is that the turbo-generator produces its own electricity to run the electric motor and propeller, thus eliminating the need for charging stations at airports and the time required for recharging. “We believe that this is the biggest step that can be taken in a minimum of time towards decarbonization,” he said.

Shahani does not anticipate any major hurdles and said current battery technology would allow hybrid-to-electric conversion. “What we’re doing here is engineering, not science. It doesn’t depend on battery technology updates that don’t exist today.

While the new Grand Caravan EX will go live next year, Surf Air Mobility announces that it will place them at one of its operating partners, among the companies whose planes and flights are available on the platform. Surf Air Mobility.

There are no plans to replace the Pilatus PC-12s currently operated for the Surf Air member charter service with Advanced Air, as they are useful for longer flights, 300-500 miles, while the caravan hybrid-electric will serve routes from 50 to 250 miles. . The idea is to follow a similar mission profile – with slightly shorter routes – with a Grand Caravan, offering transport in a nine-seater configuration while reducing costs and emissions by 25%. “We see room to evolve our platform,” he said, “and we see regional air service that is more affordable for a much larger audience.”

“Hybrid-electric propulsion technology, deployed at scale for environmental and business benefits, is an important part of the future of travel,” said Ron Draper, President and CEO of Textron Aviation.

Surf Air Mobility has already flirted with electric planes, having purchased charter broker Blackbird in early 2020. Although Blackbird has announced plans to purchase 110 eFlyer light electric planes from Bye Aerospace, with the intention of putting them in charter service, Shahani said, “We don’t have any immediate plans or timelines for this. We are focusing on the regular high-frequency service of eight passengers and reducing the price within a framework of regular service It’s a phased approach, and it’s our first step into electrification.

Once the STC is approved, Surf Air Mobility will offer the hybrid electric upgrade to existing Grand Caravan owners at a price similar to the cost of the PT6 engine overhaul. “So it becomes an attractive option for them to change jobs,” he said.

Rob Scholl, senior vice president of Textron eAviation, explained that the Surf Air Mobility order is not a deal with Textron Aviation’s fledgling eAviation division. Rather, his role means that he works “across the entire Textron Aviation company. I am looking for interesting opportunities, technologies, products and partners to work with. While there isn’t really an eAviation division today, what I do is work across the entire portfolio with all the products we have, from fixed wings to vertical lift by the way. by defense at Textron Systems, to examine different opportunities.

“And that’s a great example of what Textron can bring to the market. It is an opportunity to present the combined expertise and technologies of Textron Aviation and Surf Air Mobility. The exceptional capabilities and versatility of the Grand Caravan make it an ideal aircraft to take advantage of this new technology.

Textron Aviation will assist Surf Air Mobility with the engineering and data to support the STC program. After FAA certification, Surf Air Mobility will seek certification outside of the United States, and Textron Aviation will assist with sales and product support. “This is an exciting opportunity to create new markets and reduce the carbon footprint of aviation,” said Scholl. “If you look at Textron Aviation, we have the largest fleet of aircraft in service in the world, so the opportunity to take new propulsion technology and find ways to integrate it into existing platforms allows us to ‘have an impact not only with new aircraft. If we see opportunities to do other things with new designs, we will look there as well. “

In 2022, Surf Air Mobility aims to take delivery of 12 Grand Caravan EX. “We hope we can increase according to demand,” Shahani said. There are no plans to add autonomous technology to pilot the caravans, he added. Passengers who travel on Surf Air Mobility planes expect to see pilots in the front seats. “Our missions are centered on passengers. Autonomy can start in the cargo area.


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