Greater Zurich is becoming a center of electric aviation

The international electric aviation scene will once again meet in Grenchen in the canton of Solothurn in September. The smartflyer electric aircraft is also being developed there, allowing the aircraft’s initiators to continue a long aviation tradition and benefit from the region’s highly specialized precision industry.

Bild: Smartflyer

Electric aviation involves gliding silently and gently through the air. “Electric aviation will boost small aviation in particular in the near future,” says Rolf Stuber, a pilot with Swiss International Air Lines in Zurich and CEO of the Grenchen-based start-up smartflyer.

He and his team are developing a hybrid four-seater with an innovative powertrain. Along with the smartflyer-challenge, Grenchen is establishing itself as a center for electric aviation. This is the third time now that experts from all over Europe are coming to Grenchen for the smartflyer-challenge.

But the location is already well known in the aviation scene: Aviation pioneer Willi Farner established an important aircraft factory here last century, and Grenchen Airport is now an active ecosystem in private aviation.

Record-breaking performances in the skies

Electric aviation is good for breaking records. For example, the smartflyer-challenge awards prizes to aircraft that overcome the widest possible landing approach with an electric or hybrid drive – a competition like no other in the world. The event will also likely see the first certified model of the Pipistrel Alpha Electro transport passengers.

Switzerland plays a leading role in this context: A particularly high number of Swiss pilots complete their flight hours with new aircraft, which is necessary for their certification.

The smartflyer is planning its maiden flight for 2021 as the hybrid drive is still being tested. Electric power gently carries the plane into the sky. It has a combustion engine installed on top, which makes it possible to position the propellers more efficiently – and creates opportunities for innovation.

The startup received support from the Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) and today boasts partners from the private sector, such as the Hamilton watch brand, which belongs to Swatch.

Precision industry just around the corner

The startup has found the perfect home for itself in Grenchen. Famous for its watches, the  region is well known for its unique precision industry cluster. For example, watch movement manufacturer ETA (which also belongs to Swatch) has its headquarters here as well as its largest production facility. Many SMEs are also active in this sector.

Says Stuber: “We deal with the precision industry on a daily basis for development purposes. For example, Leiko SA in Grenchen supplies parts of the highest complexity that only a few other companies in the world can produce.”

Smartflyer also benefits immensely from the region’s research institutions and universities. Students from the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerlandand the University of Applied Sciences Chur have contributed to work on the battery, chassis and even the market situation, and co-founder Philipp Glocker spent many years researching electrical engineering.

Scaling up is a possibility

Bringing all this know-how together gives smartflyer a head start – and it makes the aircraft an ideal platform for electric engine manufacturers such as Siemens or Rollce Royce, two big names that the startup and its founders collaborate with.

A special feature of its design is that, while purely electric aircraft often have only one or two seats, smartflyer is clearing the way to bring electric motors into a higher category. “We have four seats, but, if it works, then the system could be used for aircraft with up to 19 passengers,” says Stuber. With innovative designs like this, the Grenchen-based startup is taking electric aviation one giant leap forward.

smartflyer-challenge on September 14 and 15, 2019:

The third smartflyer-challenge will take place at Grenchen Airport from Saturday, September 14 to Sunday, September 15. Ten teams from across Europe have already registered with their aircraft for the competition. The smartflyer eTrophy will be awarded for the first time: Prizes will be handed out to three teams that have covered the longest distances to Grenchen in an electric or hybrid aircraft. Alongside the competition, experts will gather at a symposium to discuss technological and economic issues in electric aviation. Entry is free for visitors.

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