The Future of Hybrid Electric Flight
Starting up a new product business – raising investment, gaining buy-in within your industry, and warming up new customers to build a market – is tough. Doing this in the aviation industry is even tougher.
So, how do you convey your concept when it doesn’t exist yet?
Aviation is big business, and vast resources are required to launch a new aircraft platform. Aircraft concepts are clearly less about aesthetics than achieving a highly complex functional balance between physics, regulation and commercial constraints. Yet, despite all the rationality, getting buy-in and backing still requires winning people’s hearts.
Right now, developing sustainable air travel is the most urgent but difficult challenge facing aviation. There is growing pressure on the big aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus to respond with meaningful innovation. Perhaps Covid-19 turmoil will be the needed catalyst; however, truly disruptive innovation is unlikely to come from within the aviation establishment.
Like Tesla has done in the car industry, it probably needs new players like Electric Aviation Group (EAG) to truly disrupt the status quo. EAG is a team with extraordinary experience and insight within the aviation industry. Rather than just focusing on one area like creating an electric-powered turbine, EAG has been cleverly innovating across the whole aircraft system to come up with a ‘comprehensive package’ of technologies, to form their new Hybrid Electric Regional Aircraft (HERA) platform. Consequently, HERA is the first very low carbon design able to carry 70+ passengers on short-haul journeys. Their 20+ patents cover technologies such as mixed gas turbine and electric power, energy recovery on landing, fast recovery battery systems with aerodynamically lower drag features.
Their next challenge is raising significant funding to develop the HERA demonstrator. And to do this they needed good imagery to tell a compelling story and convey the idea to investors. As the saying goes ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. But not all imagery is equal… it had to be dramatic, but not fanciful – to get attention without being ‘shot down’.
A couple of recommendations led them to approach Realise. But there was a catch. Not only did they need imagery, but they hadn’t yet drawn up the plane for all this technology to go into.
They wanted us to design an aircraft!
Our Design Solutions
Being able to talk the right technical language with our customers is important, as effective conversations are vital to a successful project.
Our team comprises talented individuals with a variety of backgrounds – mechanical engineers, product designers and branding experts to name a few, which makes us pretty adaptable and able to marry the commercial with the creative! We’re also lucky for this project, that Andrew’s background in Naval Architecture, gives him an understanding of hydro/aero-dynamics, and that he also happens to have a lifelong passion for aircraft, inherited from his family (his grandfather was one of the first navy pilots to fly off a ship and helped organise the first flight over Everest!)
Understanding EAG’s business goals focused us on two critical aims:
- Develop a great looking plane, that must also work in reality – i.e. it would actually fly well and be aerodynamically more efficient.
- Visualise this with compelling and exciting images to get people excited (think the glamour of Catch Me If You Can with the futuristic design of Blade Runner ..)
After some deep technical conversations with EAG, we quickly modelled several designs around the arrangements of their technology and the aerodynamic options for further discussion.
For example, we investigated four different tail fin arrangements with aim of optimising stability and drag. Through an iterative process, this resulted in four separate designs with the ‘U-tail’ being selected as both the ‘prettiest’ and most efficient. The U-tail borrows some ideas from the way nature has arranged bird tails, simplifying the tail into just two main horizontal stabilisers. This firstly reduces interaction drag between the stabilisers and the fuselage, and secondly by making these more raised angles (or dihedral) than normal, creates stability that allows the vertical stabilisers at the end to be smaller. These vertical stabilisers then also act as ‘tailets’ (like you see on the end of wings) to reduce the tip vortex drag. This allows the horizontal tailplanes to also then more efficiently share some of the lift in flight, thereby slightly reducing the area of the wing needed. It’s a smart way of arranging the various parts to share jobs and together become more efficient than when they are working independently.
Once the final aircraft concept was agreed, we needed to show it off as best we could! Researching other people’s concept aircraft images, we very realised that the standard ‘white stripey plane’ on a blue sky was over-done and boring. Our aircraft needed to feel more real-world, dramatic, adventurous, and exciting!
Firstly we experimented with some simple ‘EAG’ liveries with the aim – rather like dressing a fashion model – of creating a classy and contemporary look, whilst enhancing HERA’s unique curves! At the same time, we reviewed thousands of potential sky scene images, sketching and storyboarding, alongside quick renders, to find compositions that would show off all the unique features of HERA, in a range of dynamic positions, in emotionally engaging dramatic skies.
Once each scene was planned, we used the backgrounds to match the colour and reflections to set up the lighting in the renders, with hours spent experimenting to get good effects. But, there’s only so much the rendering software can do – so the last task was to artistically polish the images in Photoshop, not least adding effects like the spin blur of the propellers.
EAG and Realise are really pleased with the result of the collaboration. With relatively little investment in time, input or resource they’ve got exactly what they had hoped for and more, with these images being instrumental to them communicating their concept for HERA, effectively lifting EAG from a company with a collection of excellent patents to being the manufacturer of a serious future aircraft platform solution. In their words:
“It was a surprisingly good experience working with Andrew and his team to realise our aircraft concept. Not only were they responsive and passionate about the creative aspect, they clearly understand the aerodynamics of flight, so we had some very sensible, productive conversations about alternative layouts and features of our aircraft. I am delighted they managed to so rapidly turn this into such a good looking aircraft, not something that even the top aero-engineers often manage to do in my experience.” – Dr Norman Wood, CTO Electric Aviation Group
An additional benefit of the CAD is that Realise has been able to create new images quickly for EAG for a tailored pitch deck, to help an investment partner and an airline to visualise HERA in their custom livery, building excitement and confidence.
For example, in the lead up to the 2020 Farnborough International Airshow, the British Government announced the Jet Zero initiative. At EAG’s request, Realise returned to the scene, and created the UK branded livery you see here, helping EAG reinforce HERA as the next step solution to achieve the UK’s Jet Zero ambitions. This has helped open the door to securing high profile meetings, giving EAG further credibility to attract leading industry partners such as GE Aviation in their newly formed Jet Zero Coalition.
With a team that loves to travel but is equally concerned about Climate Change, Realise are excited to be building such a positive relationship with EAG, and together using our creativity and knowledge for a truly meaningful contribution towards our sustainable future.
If you want to know more about the challenges and opportunities around Sustainable Aviation, head on over to our article about the barriers to future aircraft technologies.