MagniX Sees Regional Operators as Electric Aviation Pioneers

 - August 10, 2020, 8:39 AM
Electric propulsion specialist MagniX says it is close to signing up a launch customer and STC partner for its eCaravan re-engining program. (Photo: MagniX)

MagniX has reported further progress with flight testing of its proposed electric versions of the Cessna Caravan and DHC-2 Beaver utility aircraft. The company told AIN it is on track to achieve FAA Part 33 certification for the battery-powered propulsion systems by late 2021 or early 2022 and that supplemental type certificates (STCs) could be in place for both programs in time for aircraft to enter commercial service by the end of 2022.

At the same time, MagniX is continuing to work with its sister company Eviation Aircraft to provide the electric motors for the new Alice fixed-wing aircraft. Following a fire during ground testing and delays due to Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, the first prototype of the aircraft is now expected to make an initial flight in early 2021, according to MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski.

U.S.-based MagniX is focusing its efforts on providing electric propulsion for new and existing fixed-wing aircraft that could fly sectors of between 50 and 1,000 miles. For now, Ganzarski explained, it is not seeking to provide propulsion for new eVTOL aircraft because it doesn’t see the strong commercial case for scaling down its Magni250 and -500 motors, which currently offer continuous power of 280 and 560 kW, respectively. Many eVTOL aircraft designs require multiple electric motors, each with power of around 40 or 50 kW.

On May 28, MagniX and its partner AeroTec achieved a first flight with the eCaravan prototype, which is a modified version of the Cessna 208B Grand Caravan powered by the Magni500. Flight testing has continued at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington, and Ganzarski said that it has since become the first electric aircraft of its type to fly at an altitude of 8,000 feet. This has allowed engineers to evaluate how the electrical components perform in an unpressurized environment.

Each flight test has lasted a minimum of 30 minutes, with distances flown gradually being increased by unspecified amounts. The development team has been experimenting with various rates of climb and descent and also with varying power levels.

A similar approach is being taken with flight testing of the Beaver in a program that got underway in December 2019 with MagniX’s partner Harbour Air in Vancouver, British Colombia. The Canadian regional airline is aiming to electrify its entire fleet eventually.

With the so-called eBeaver, MagniX has replaced the aircraft’s original radial piston engine with the added benefit of improving the aerodynamic profile of the nose section of the fuselage. The company says the resulting improvement in lift-to-drag ratio will deliver a 20 percent improvement in speed and with less power output. Gansarski said that this breakthrough may prompt MagniX to switch to a lower-power motor than the Magni500 that it is currently using.

Acknowledging the limitations of existing lithium-ion batteries, Gansarski maintained that they are, nonetheless, sufficient for the relatively short missions for which the eCaravan and eBeaver will be best suited. “The fact is that most people won’t want to fly more than around 30 or 40 minutes in aircraft like this,” he told AIN.

That said, MagniX remains open to improving battery technology being promised through advances with alternatives such as lithium-sulfur-based options and it is also paying attention to what is happening with equipment such as hydrogen fuel cells. “Even the batteries that are available today are already twice as powerful as the ones we bought in 2019, and that is mainly due to improvements made for electric cars,” he reflected.

MagniX is now in discussions with several Caravan operators in the U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia over which will commit to being the launch operator for the eCaravan. The business model calls for a network of operators to partner with the propulsion OEM to install its motors under a series of STCs. Harbour Air is already its STC partner for the eBeaver.

“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, who feels that it could take up to 15 years for eVTOL urban air mobility applications to prove commercially viable. MagniX is looking at the top 10 aircraft types, including multi-engine models, that currently fly what it calls middle-mile sectors as prospective platforms for re-engining.

Eviation and MagniX are both owned by the Singapore-based Clermont Group. The former company has been silent about the timeline for its Alice program since suffering fire damage to the prototype on January 22 at the company's Prescott Regional Airport base in Arizona. Eviation had planned to begin flight testing in late 2019 or early 2020, but Ganzarski said that the aircraft is still on track to complete type certification under Part 23 rules in 2023.

Asked about the potential for electric aviation to expand its horizons, Ganzarski argued that around half of all air transport movements are between around 50 and 500 miles. He claimed that the Covid-19 crisis is prompting a resurgence in demand for regional services to smaller and more local airports, rather than larger aircraft flying in and out of busy hub airports.

“Flights of more than 1,000 miles are only around 30 percent of the total so that is not the biggest market,” he commented. “Anyway, we would need much more power for that and the battery technology is not even close, so we would need something like hydrogen fuel. I think that is 20 to 30 years away at a minimum.”

According to Ganzarski, it will likely take customer pressure to convince aircraft manufacturers to switch to electrical power, suggesting that this is essentially what it took to get winglets fitted on Boeing’s 737 family. “I hope OEMs will not go the way of [film manufacturer] Kodak in not wanting to see the [digital] future; I hope they want to be ahead of the curve,” he concluded.