When most people think of Rolls-Royce, they think of really expensive but ancient-looking cars. In the Back to the Future series, wrecking into one was bad enough to destroy one’s whole financial future. They’re that expensive, and Marty McFly was definitely glad that he was able to change his ways before the big accident. What many car people don’t know is that the company has quite a name for itself in aviation, and it’s not a name it is going to let fade into the past as we go into the electric future.
“Electrification of flight is an important part of our sustainability strategy as we aim for net zero carbon by 2050. Taxiing of the ‘Spirit of Innovation’ is an incredible milestone for the ACCEL team as we progress to first flight and the world-record attempt later this year.” said Rob Watson, Director, Rolls-Royce Electrical. “For the first time, the plane propelled itself forward using the power from an advanced battery and propulsion system that is ground-breaking in terms of electrical technology.”
Staying current with aviation technology makes a lot of sense for Rolls-Royce. While its cars were old-fashioned and still have a deep retro look, the company actually sold the car division decades ago. The cars were subsequently built by Volkswagen and now BMW, while the Rolls-Royce aircraft division continued to present without being sold off. The bottom line here: The aircraft division is the real Rolls-Royce while the cars are now only a ghost of the company’s past.
The real Rolls-Royce is the world’s second biggest manufacturer of aircraft engines, and builds many other types of big, expensive engines for the marine and energy sectors (including nuclear reactors for both power plants and submarines). Its jet engines have been in everything from the Airbus A380, the largest commercial passenger aircraft there is, and fighters like the Eurofighter, Typhoon, and F-35 (for lift). The company is a big player, and isn’t about to let anyone beat them into the future.
The Spirit of Innovation is a small propeller aircraft, but it’s not meant to prove how long or far electric aircraft can go. The goal is to show how fast they can be, and it has the guts to pull that off. It’s got a 400 kW electric powertrain pulling juice from the latest batteries, and the company expects the plane to exceed 300 MPH. If it pulls that off, it will be the fastest electric plane, ever.
Getting the Spirit of Innovation off the ground is planned for sometime this spring, but the company’s big milestone is that it moved for the first time under its own power taxiing a runway. That might not sound impressive, but the test is an important one. If the craft can’t pull itself around on the ground, there’s no way it can take to the skies, and perhaps more importantly, bring the pilot back to the ground in one piece. Pulling it around the tarmac brings them one step closer to setting the speed records without getting anyone hurt.
The craft is part of a joint effort between the UK government and private businesses like Rolls-Royce called the ACCEL program. That’s short for ‘Accelerating the Electrification of Flight’. Key partners are YASA, the electric motor and controller manufacturer, and aviation start-up Electroflight, so the effort involves some younger companies while being guided by an experienced aviation company.
“The UK is committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” said the UK Minister for Business Paul Scully. “Through government grants for research and development, we’re championing innovation in the aerospace sector to meet this ambitious target as we build back greener from the pandemic.”
The program is about more than just setting speed records and gaining bragging rights. The kind of power needed to accelerate an electric aircraft up to over 300 miles per hour is very similar to the power that will be needed by future electric taxi aircraft. While the Spirit of Innovation aircraft will be using all of that energy going forward and being lifted by fixed wings, air taxis will use that power to lift themselves off the ground vertically and then change to forward flight to get where they’re going and then land safely. By proving the technologies to put that kind of power into propellers with a traditions fixed-wing plane, they’ll get a lot of data and experience for other uses.
This system and the capabilities being developed will help position Rolls-Royce as a technology leader offering power systems to the Urban Air Mobility market.” said Rob Watson, Director, Rolls-Royce Electrical.
Why This Matters
There was a time that people thought of electric cars as slow. Stereotypical “left lane Prius” drivers that people like to make obscene gestures towards didn’t help with that, and neither did many early eco-oriented (and ugly) EVs that people had to drive slow to maximize range. When Tesla decided to make cool and fast electric cars, it changed everything and made electric cars something people actually wanted to buy.
Going for electric speed records isn’t just cool. It’s a way to prove that electric aircraft can be high performers, and will draw more work and investment toward the industry.
The air taxis that many companies will be building in the future are a good side effect, too. By proving that power systems putting out the kind of air moving ability that will be needed for vertical takeoffs will make it so that electric aircraft will be able to do things that current fossil-fueled aircraft just don’t do at present. Sure, there are helicopters today, but they’re expensive and complex, not to mention noisy. Almost nobody wants to call a helicopter to pick them up and take them to work or the airport today because it would likely be a lousy experience for most people, but electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft could change that.
At the same time, we can’t just ignore that it’s cool to set speed records. Seven-year-old us wasn’t impressed with efficiency or range records, and there’s a part of all of us that isn’t either. Sometimes going fast just for fun is good enough.
Featured image: The Rolls-Royce Spirit of Innovation, image courtesy of Rolls-Royce