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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Charlotte-based Collins Aerospace talks about move toward electric flight

About 350 aerospace engineers listened for 30 minutes to the innovative work Collins Aerospace is doing in the hybrid-electric propulsion of aircraft when it came time for questions.

Electric vehicles have been around for years, said one of the engineers, so what has Charlotte-based Collins Aerospace learned from the makers of the Prius?

“Here’s one of the dilemmas the aviation industry has,” answered Henry Brooks, president of Power and Controls at Collins Aerospace. “Cars run on the ground and airplanes don’t.”

Brooks leads one of six Collins Aerospace business units from his office in Charlotte. He says the aviation industry has learned a lot of lessons from EV makers as it enters the “third era” of aviation, which started just 120 years ago with the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. First there were piston-driven engines, then jet turbines and now, in the next few years, airplanes will move to hybrid-electric propulsion, says Brooks.

“I feel like we’re working on the future every time we come to work,” says Brooks. Collins, an RTX subsidiary, is making a 1 megawatt electric motor to be used in connection with a gas-fueled engine manufactured by its sister RTX company, Pratt and Whitney. The new hybrid-electric propulsion system is being tested on an experimental plane that made made its first engine run in December 2022 and continued ground testing through 2023. RTX expects to make its first test flight in the next 12 months using a 30-seat plane that can travel around 250 miles, Brooks says. (Raytheon Technologies changed its name to RTX last summer.)

Brooks was among the keynote speakers Tuesday to start the three-day SAE AeroTech Conference at the Charlotte Convention Center. It attracts aerospace engineers who work for huge companies like Boeing and Airbus as well as startups and university students.

Collins’ 1 megawatt electric motor – on display at the convention and about the size of a gallon can – would be used to lessen the burden on the gas engine when an airplane needs its most energy – during takeoff and climb.

The gas engine would take over while the plane cruised across the sky, says Brooks. Having an electric motor during takeoff would allow the gas engine to be smaller and more efficient. Large all-electric powered planes are not feasible at this time, he says.

Collins Aerospace’s 1 megawatt electric motor to be used to help power airplanes on display Tuesday, March 12, 2024, at the Charlotte Convention Center during SAE AreoTech conference.

Using electric motors in combination with traditional jet-fueled engines – much like a hybrid Prius – could cut greenhouse gas emissions up to 30%, says Brooks, and help the aviation industry reach its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“We not only have to take care of the jet engines, we also have to take care of our planet,” he says.

Aviation counts for about 2% of the 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide humans emit into the atmosphere each year by burning fossil fuels, Brooks says. If the aviation industry does nothing, airplanes will account for about 18% of greenhouse gas emissions because other industries are cutting their footprints and air travel is growing, he adds

Work on the electric motor takes place at a $50 million electric power systems lab that opened last year in Rockford, Illinois. Collins also makes smaller electric motors, which can be scaled to meet different kinds of aircraft. The 1 megawatt motor produces enough energy to power all the streetlights in the 750-mile path between Charlotte and Syracuse, Brooks says.

Electrification will create “less fuel burn and more environmental success” toward the 2050 goal of net-zero emissions, he says. “The industry is transforming as we speak,” says Brooks.

The switch to using hybrid-electric engines still has several obstacles to overcome. Energy storage – not necessarily batteries – needs to become better. Currently in some cases, the batteries would weigh more than the airplane itself, he says.

The industry also needs to solve how to recharge the batteries efficiently for turnaround commercial flights. Collins is not in the energy storage industry, says Brooks, but is working with other companies who are.

Airports also are not yet ready for hybrid-electric planes, he says. Safety for passengers remains paramount. “What we don’t have is it safe enough yet to put it on a flight?” he says. RTX has put hundreds of engineers to work on those issues.

“The technology will win,” he says.

Arlington, Virginia-based RTX has more than 180,000 global employees, including more than 4,500 in North Carolina. About 400 of those work in Charlotte. The company had $67 billion in sales in 2022.

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