Largest Electric Plane Yet Completes Successful Test

The eCaravan shows promise, but battery limitations continue to be an obstacle.

The biggest electric plane yet recently completed its first successful test flight. This milestone further showcases the potential—and the problems—of electric air travel.

Dubbed the “eCaravan,” the plane is a modified Cessna 208B Caravan with a wingspan over 50 feet. The aircraft flew for 28 minutes, reaching 100 miles per hour and a peak altitude of about 2,500 feet. While the eCaravan only had the pilot’s seat installed, the Cessna model is capable of carrying up to nine passengers.

The eCaravan is the creation of two companies: AeroTEC, a flight testing company, and magniX, an electric propulsion firm. The plane is powered by magniX’s 750-horsepower Magni500 electric propulsion system.

Electric aircraft could potentially be cheaper, quieter and safer to operate than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts—in addition to reducing or eliminating carbon emissions that are becoming increasingly problematic for the aerospace sector.

According to magniX CEO Roei Ganzarski, the eCaravan’s flight cost a mere $6, while a 30-minute flight powered by conventional aircraft fuel could cost $300. The eCaravan’s engine was also half as noisy as that of its chase plane. Electric engines can also be much easier to maintain than their conventional turboprop equivalents.

But the flight also highlighted the significant obstacles e-planes need to overcome in order to be commercially viable. To power the motor, the eCaravan carried 2,000 pounds worth of lithium-ion batteries—and at a total weight of about four tons, that’s half of its mass dedicated just to the batteries. And while batteries continue to get lighter, they are still far too heavy to replace conventional fossil fuels in aircraft: current batteries can be more than 30 times heavier than an equivalent amount of liquid fuel. Another complication: while a fossil fuel-powered aircraft gets lighter as it burns its fuel, an electric plane will still be burdened by the weight of its drained batteries.

This severely impacts the electric aircraft’s range as well: while the eCaravan’s range is 100 miles, a regular Cessna Caravan of the same weight can fly 1,500 miles.

The eCaravan takes flight.

The eCaravan will continue to undergo extensive testing and development, with the aim of securing Federal Aviation Administration design approval in late 2021. AeroTEC and magniX hope that their aircraft will be able to take on regional passenger and short cargo routes—and do so at lower costs and with lower emissions. “We are true believers that it is [on flights of] between 50 and 1,000 miles that electric aviation will take hold at first,” said Ganzarski.

Read more about the promise, and obstacles, around electric aircraft at When Will We Get Electric Planes?