PHOTO CAPTION: Cambridge University/Boeing hybrid-electric ultralight

Hybrid-Electric Aircraft Makes Successful Test Flight in Britain

Jointly developed by the Cambridge University's engineering department and Boeing, the single-seat ultralight is the first to use a parallel hybrid propulsion system.

Published: 02-Jan-2015

The engineering department at Cambridge University in England recently joined a lengthening list of successful electric first flights when their experimental, single-seat ultralight made its maiden flight in the skies over Sywell Aerodrome, near Northampton.

Powered by what is said to be the first parallel hybrid aircraft power-plant, the researchers mated a four-stroke petrol (gasoline) engine with an electric motor, the combined output of which matches the horsepower of the original internal combustion engine (ICE). The electric motor is powered by 16 lithium icon batteries embedded in the wings.

According to the program director, Paul Robertson, the advantage of a parallel-hybrid system is that it allows the ICE part of the system to operate more efficiently in flight. Typically, the engine has to be oversized to enable to plane to take-off and climb. Once at cruise altitude, power is cut back, which means the engine isn't operating at in most efficient regime. The hybrid approach allows the engine to be sized for cruise with the electric drive providing the additional thrust needed for take-off. The experimental airplane has demonstrated a 30% improvement in fuel economy over the standard, non-hybrid model.

The other advantage is a safety one. If one of the power systems fails in flight, the second can enable a safe landing.

As Dr. Robertson notes, however, while the hybrid system works on an ultraight-class aircraft, it will be decades before it can applied successfully to commercial airliners.

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