Instead of taking off with thunderous jet engines, future airplanes may soar into the air on battery packs, and jettison them like so much ballast once the juice has been drained. Then these batteries could be replaced in flight. Instead of refueling with flying tankers, electric planes would rendezvous with autonomous flying battery-drones.
This plan could enable an all-electric trip across the Atlantic, retracing Charles Lindbergh's flight path. Later this month, aviation enthusiast Chip Yates — inventor of the Swigz Pro electric superbike — plans to test an electric plane at Inyokern Airport in Southern California.
Yates is the founder of Flight of the Century, an ambitious project to fly an electric plane across the Atlantic Ocean by 2014. The team bought an airplane designed by aviation god Burt Rutan, a Long-EZ (call sign N158TG), and is in the process of converting it to an all-electric test vehicle. They've filed for a patent on their system, which is called Infinite Range Electric Flight (IREF).
Electric airplanes remain fairly impractical because of their weight and power limitations. To carry enough power to take off, an electric plane would need lots of batteries, which are prohibitively heavy. Solar-powered aircraft are more practical at this point, as evidenced by the series of flights this summer by the Solar Impulse aircraft. But dropping drained batteries would get rid of extra weight, according to Yates' plan. And recharging in flight — as the military has done for decades — would enable the plane to fly unlimited distances.
It would work by deploying fleets of flying battery packs — basically drones full of batteries — to various ground or ocean stations. A human-piloted electric airplane would take off using these flyable battery packs, draining most of their energy just for takeoff. Then it would jettison them in flight, and the packs would autonomously fly (using a separate battery supply) down to the ground or ocean base. Or they could parachute down for recovery. There, they would recharge for future use. Meanwhile, a freshly charged battery pack would launch from the base station and tether to the human-piloted electric airplane. During this transition period, the electric airplane would use its own internal battery supply, according to the Flight of the Century project.
The team is already performing some runway tests, and plans to take off in the electric plane later this month.