LONDON- Europe's top engineering companies Airbus SE (AIR.FR), Rolls-Royce Holdings PLC (RR.LN) and Siemens AG (SIE.XE) plan to fly a hybrid-electric airliner in three years in what it turning into a race with Boeing Co. (BA) over who can first showcase the benefits of small electric passenger planes.
The three European companies plan to modify a BAe 146 regional airliner with a hybrid-electric propulsion system to take flight in 2020. "It is an aggressive target," Airbus Head of Flight Demonstrators Mark Cousin said Tuesday.
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Ticket-buying customers could be flying on a regional plane seating around 100 passengers in 2030, Rolls-Royce Chief Technology Officer Paul Stein said.
Boeing, through its HorizonX venture capital arm, in April announced an investment inZunum Aero, a Kirkland, Wash, firm developing electric aircraft propulsion systems. JetBlue Airways Corp., with its own venture capital arm also has taken a stake.
Zunum Aero's initial design will be for a plane seating up to 12 passengers. The company hopes it will enter service in 2022.
Boeing last month also said it plans to acquire Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., deepening its reach into electric-powered aircraft.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration last year started an experimental electric plane concept, designated the X-57.
Boeing, the world's largest plane maker by deliveries, and its nearest rival Airbus, dominate the market for passenger planes seating more than 150 passengers. Those planes have been in the crosshairs of environmental groups for their fuel burn, spurring the interest of plane makers for alternative, cleaner power sources. Fuel is also one of the biggest costs for airlines.
The technology concepts now on the drawing board are modest compared with the jetliners most airlines operate. Still, Mr. Cousins said "there are a number of airlines who are very interested in the development of this technology." British budget airline easyJet PLC this year signaled it could be interested in an electric plane concept.
Eventually, the goal is to introduce the technology also into the single-aisle and widebody planes most commonly used by the world's airlines, Mr. Stein said.
Airbus in 2015 demonstrated a prototype electric plane in an English Channel crossing. It abandoned to build a family of small, electric planes seating fewer than five people to instead focus on the larger design.
With the new E-Fan X, Mr. Cousin said, "the objective of this is not to produce a product but to mature technology." A production design would yield double-digit fuel burn savings and also cut noise and other pollutants.
Each company will contribute several million dollars to fund the effort. The group also is seeking U.K. government financial backing.
The companies decided to modify the existing four-engine plane design in part for safety reasons. Only one of the engines will initially be replaced with the hybrid-electric design. The engine will be replaced by a two megawatt electric motor powered by an existing aircraft engine. The aircraft will also feature a battery to deliver a power boost for extra power during takeoff.
"There are no fundamental technology blockers," Mr. Cousin said. The target now is to make that equipment light enough to put on a plane.
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 28, 2017 05:09 ET (10:09 GMT)