In 2015/16, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg circumnavigated the globe for the first time in a purely solar-powered aircraft, the ‘Solar Impulse’. And with the SolarStratos project, aviation pioneer Raphaël Domjan from Western Switzerland intends to enter the stratosphere in a solar powered aircraft. These examples show that drive systems using electricity from renewable sources have a future not only on the ground, but also in the air. The people at the start-up Hangar 55 are also convinced of this, and the company has joined forces with partners from the industry to develop a battery-powered stunt plane that, once charged using electricity from renewable sources, flies completely without CO2 emissions.
It achieves record-breaking ranges – electrically powered aircraft to date have achieved a flight time of around ten minutes, while the new plane has stayed in the air for 45 minutes, including 30 minutes’ energy-intensive aerobatics, without a drop of kerosene.
Integrating existing components
With its natural, low-CO2 terrain, Valais offers the ideal location for the development of electrically powered mobility. It is little surprise, therefore, that it was in the Rhone valley, near Raron, that the ‘Hamilton aEro’ – the name of the electric plane – took to the air in autumn 2016, after an eighteen-month development period, to the amazement and delight of the crowd who came to watch. This maiden flight was made possible by the developers, with technological support from their main sponsor, Hamilton, incorporating the very latest available components into an ultra-light high-tech aircraft. The fuselage is made from fibreglass and carbon composite, the Siemens electric motor gives maximum power for minimum weight and the aircraft including batteries weighs in at just 326 kg. Allowing around 100 kg for the pilot and equipment, this gives a maximum start weight of 420 kg.
Hangar 55 has brought to life the design for a stunt plane suitable for series production in record time. The company is made up of three passionate pilots: Thomas Pfammatter, Dominique Steffen and Sébastien Demont. Demont was the leading electrical engineer for the ‘Solar Impulse’ project. He also has prime responsibility for the heart of the innovative plane – the battery management system. The main task of this system is to monitor the 108 battery cells, and it has the capability to shut down any individual cell, e.g. if there is a threat of overheating. A proportion of the electricity is recovered during the flight by converting to electricity the kinetic energy of the rotor produced during a dive.
Grasping future market opportunities
“In ten years, most stunt pilots will be flying on electricity,” says Thomas Pfammatter. “Electric planes are cheaper, quieter and more ecologically sound than their fossil fuel-driven predecessors.” With their electric plane, the Hangar 55 pioneers demonstrate how the Swiss industrial network can be used for innovative solutions and the market opportunities they bring. With their battery management system, they are supplying a key component for electric plane manufacturers. Hangar 55 also intend to produce their own stunt planes in small series. The follow-up model to the ‘Hamilton aEro’ is to be even more high-performance and manoeuvrable – good enough to delight the crowds who come to watch complex aerobatics competitions.