Buckle up, the future of flying’s electric

HERE’S a thing which never occurred to me until I was speaking last week to an aviation expert – a former engineering apprentice of the year at Rolls-Royce, but let that pass. It turns out that electric planes (as in powered by) have been the holy grail of flying since at least the 1930s.

CAeS is proposing entering the electric aircraft market and has already done so with Project Fresson. Named after Scottish aviation pioneer Ted Fresson, the £18m project aims to refit a nine-seat twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander with an electric propulsion system. (28903490)
CAeS is proposing entering the electric aircraft market and has already done so with Project Fresson. Named after Scottish aviation pioneer Ted Fresson, the £18m project aims to refit a nine-seat twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander with an electric propulsion system. (28903490)

Obvious really. Compared to piston or jet aircraft, electric motors are far more efficient, cheap, simple, very much more reliable and with few working parts. Storing the energy they need for flight, however, has been the problem until recently, when suitable technology has become available.

This has actually been the game-changer and now a global race is on to launch the first commercially viable e-plane to serve what are called sub-regional routes – those for which electric-powered aircraft are ideal because of the shorter distances involved.

And incredibly, Guernsey could play a major part in developing this revolutionary form of transport while significantly ‘greening’ travel to and from the island.

Two big prizes are in reach here: backing the shift to decarbonising transport, and reducing the taxpayer drain of loss-making Aurigny – if States members are prepared to become far less risk-averse and see a much bigger picture with some complex strands.

To try to set out that picture, I should explain that there are some heavyweight backers behind sustainable aircraft: Rolls-Royce, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions Ltd, Denis Ferranti and aircraft manufacturers Britten-Norman among them. Oh, and the UK Government, which is part bankrolling the dash to e-aviation.

That’s through an initiative called Project Fresson, which received a government grant of £9m. to design, manufacture and integrate a hybrid-electric propulsion system into a 9-seat Britten-Norman (B-N) Islander aircraft.

B-N, you’ll recall, were responsible for the iconic Trislanders (where are you, Joey?) with which Aurigny once upon a time ran an inter-island flying taxi service that we all used, loved and could afford.

That struck a chord too with Mark Harrisson, the ex-Rolls-Royce aeronautical engineer I was talking to earlier, also a helicopter transport professional and pilot and, until five years ago, responsible for a certain family office on Brecqhou and its complex travel requirements.

If industry experts are backing the Islander for sub-regional, predominately remote island, sustainable air transport solutions, why not base a pilot operation here? he reasoned.

I’ll need to strip out a lot of the detail, but the basic proposal is quite simple. His company, Harrisson Aviation, is offering to take Aurigny’s loss-making Dorniers off its hands and replace them with cheaper-to-run Islanders.

It will lease the Dorniers at commercial rates and operate them on more profitable routes – including the lifeline Southampton-Alderney link – while swapping them for an initial three Islanders at its own expense to maintain the existing Alderney schedules, but more cheaply.

Two Islanders will be overnighted on Alderney, providing medivac capability and ending the reliance on the current UK helicopter service, which is more expensive and slower to scramble. Longer term, that fleet will be increased to eight aircraft operating two circular rotations (one clockwise, the other anti-clockwise) serving Guernsey, Alderney and Jersey.

So far, so conventional, because these will be piston aircraft. However, as soon as the Cranfield Aerospace Solutions demonstrator has been approved as a European Aviation Safety Agency/Civil Aviation Authority-certified modification kit, work can start on modifying the CI fleet. The first true e-aircraft could be operating in 2024.

The UK is taking a leading role in this to maintain and grow its competitive position in civil aerospace design and manufacture – and because of the enormous growth potential in electrifying commercial aviation.

Looking at B-N Islanders alone, there are 400-plus aircraft that could be retro-fitted, significantly reducing emissions energy and maintenance costs, says Mr Harrisson.

His company and its partners plan to roll out a purchase and lease-back global electrification service to meet that market, which also extends to a further 200 Dorniers and 200 Twin Otters, and he confirms that it already has funding lined up for this.

The appeal is obvious. Existing operators are able to cut costs plus their carbon footprint and raise money from a secure and trusted location like Guernsey, which is working in parallel with a research, development and manufacture programme initiated by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), the Department for Business, Energy & Industry Strategy, and Innovate UK.

In all, it’s an ambitious and far-sighted programme and, to work here, needs the buy-in of a lot of folk: Aurigny, the States of Guernsey in its various forms including as shareholder of Aurigny, the States of Jersey, the States of Alderney, Guernsey Electricity and Jersey Electricity as power providers, plus those responsible for developing the east coast of the island.

Looked at in the round, there are a lot of strands that can benefit the island, not least a new ‘export’ industry based here financing and electrifying aircraft around the globe – a natural fit for Guernsey.

These prospects, plus the climate benefits, explain why the UK government has taken a lead on promoting green, sustainable aviation and is keen to see the Guernsey project take off, in its own back yard, rather than lost to the east coast of America, the west coast of Canada or European hubs serving remote communities.

And it is almost that binary. The technology is now so far advanced that sustainable aviation is ‘when’ not ‘if’, hence the dash to market backed by Her Majesty’s Government.

For me, developments like these – which scale equally seamlessly for marine use – strengthen the case for a tidal barrage off the east coast. That way, endlessly renewable, truly green energy can power the next revolution in commercial aviation and further enhance Guernsey’s reputation as a centre for innovation.

All in all as Guernsey gears up for its Revive and Thrive initiatives, there’s a sense that certain tectonic plates are shifting and opportunities are opening up. It’s too early to say whether Guernsey will be courageous enough to pursue them – but it’s worth noting that progress to date on developing the east coast has been lamentable.

That said, listening to some of the presidential updates in the States last week, the enthusiasm was there for boldness, innovation and, above all, action. Perhaps the first tectonic plate to shift will be ‘can talk’ to ‘can do’.

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