Research on eVTOL aircraft takes flight

Mechanical Engineering researchers are exploring the potential of rechargeable batteries in electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, which could transform transportation in metropolitan areas and battle emissions, congestion, and air pollution.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Urban Air Mobility (UAM) aircraft stands to transform transportation in metropolitan areas, displacing helicopters and terrestrial vehicles. Investments in the UAM market are in the billions, with billions more anticipated as companies compete to publicize their services.

“The goal of bringing flying cars into operation has been an aspiration of humanity for at least a few decades,” said Shashank Sripad, a Ph.D. student working with Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor, both of mechanical engineeringOpens in new window. Their work, recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesOpens in new window (PNAS), explored the potential of rechargeable batteries in electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircrafts. “Now with the advances in batteries and electric propulsion, we’re actually able to make these ‘flying cars’ operable. The key takeaway here is how they fit into the larger goals of decarbonization and sustainable mobility.”

Possibly achieving a higher energy efficiency in eVTOL aircraft in comparison to terrestrial alternatives, along with faster travel times, holds immense implications for emissions and environmental sustainability. In urban spaces, air pollution—cars contributing about one third—and traffic congestion are two of the biggest problems. Electrified UAM provides a plausible alleviation of these hardships.

The underlying motivation is decarbonization. The other target of this market is to alleviate congestion and lower urban pollution.

Shashank SripadPh.D. student, Mechanical Engineering

“While decarbonizing transportation remains the underlying motivation,” said Sripad, “the other target of this market is to alleviate congestion and lower urban pollution.”

Prior to Viswanathan and Sripad’s research, it was largely believed that these aircrafts could not be electrified with current batteries. What they found is that the technology readiness level of batteries is actually sufficient for meeting the demands of UAM aircrafts.

“Generally, you expect that it would take a lot of energy to operate an aircraft that takes off vertically, flies through the air, and lands somewhere else,” Sripad explained. “However, if the aircraft is designed well—especially with fixed wings—the air will lift the craft, making it more efficient and less energy dependent.” The work also highlights the importance of power and energy available in the battery pack, while noting that battery lifetime performance and charging infrastructure remain open questions.

The world may start using these findings right away. Sripad emphasizes that their work was largely aimed at trying to inform the public and investing community on considering new variables that make electrified UAM a concept of tomorrow, rather than the distant future.

There is still work to be done. Sripad says that the next steps are to study new materials and systems that can be used to optimize batteries for eVTOL applications, as well as estimating the operational cost of such systems.

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