Startup Company Aims To Fly High with Electric-powered Aircraft

Achievement date: 
2016
Outcome/accomplishment: 

A small-company startup member of the Industrial Advisory Board (IAB) of the NSF-funded Power Optimization for Electro-Thermal Systems (POETS) Engineering Research Center (ERC), headquartered at the University of Illinois, in April 2017 announced its progress toward production of electric-powered aircraft with the potential to transform short-haul flights. The startup, Zunum Aero, announced significant funding support by fellow POETS IAB member The Boeing Company, as well as by the investment arm of JetBlue Airways Corp. 

Impact/benefits: 

Zunum Aero is designing and building several models of 10- to 50-seat hybrid-electric propulsion jets for trips of 700 miles initially, by 2020, and as much as 1,000 miles by 2030. The aircraft would fill a transportation gap in short-haul regional flights, reducing travel times in busy corridors by as much as 40 percent, and by 80 percent in areas with less traffic, the company predicted. Airfares would likely be cut by 40 to 80 percent. The aircraft will have 80 percent lower emissions initially and will reduce noise by 75 percent, Zunum said.

Explanation/Background: 

Zunum’s aircraft will feature hybrid electric propulsion systems with the capacity to accept recharging power from a variety of sources. The ultimate goal will be to switch from hybrid propulsion to fully electric motors, once the technology allows.“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” said Andrew Alleyne director of the POETS ERC, “but it comes with some serious technology challenges.” Developing an electric or hybrid-electric plane will require controlling battery weight, managing heat buildup, and integrating power subsystems efficiently, Alleyne said. POETS focuses on increasing the power density of the electrified transportation system in the U.S.  Kiruba Haran, a University of Illinois professor affiliated with POETS, leads a NASA-funded program to develop low-carbon electric aircraft. Dr. Haran is one of the co-founders of Zunum and leads their Advanced Drives team.

Having just completed work on the powertrain and preliminary design of its aircraft, Zunum reports it is now in the “build phase.” The Kirkland, Washington-based company began operations in 2013 and has also been working with the Federal Aviation Administration on development of certification rules for electric aircraft, with a complete set of standards expected by 2018.