When we talk about innovation and technology in aviation we cannot avoid talking about the company Pipistrel, given their experience built during many years of activity, that recently brought them to collaborate in important projects with Uber and NASA.
It’s not easy to build an airplane, from a design and engineering point of view, as well as from a legislative and legal point of view.
To innovate and create new solutions for the future, is not an easy task: there are many restrictions that often get in the way of innovations that can improve aviation.
Anyhow, things seem to be changing and the visit to Pipistrel in Slovenia is proof of this. I had already written about this company in another post where I presented the Alpha Electro.
In today’s post we will get into details and learn more about them, about how they build their airplanes, the technical innovations they are working on and the flight we did with their Alpha Electro.
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Pipistrel: The Company
I met the founder of the company, Mr. Ivo Boscarol, together with the person in charge for Marketing and Communication and the chief engineer. I managed to go over many points with them and understand more about the company.
We spoke about the future solutions that aviation requires in terms of innovation and safety, given the increase of air traffic and the need for more safe systems in aviation.
I understood the important role of smaller companies compared to the most famous brands such as Boeing and Airbus. Smaller companies are fundamental for research and for developing innovative solutions.
These smaller companies can strongly influence the big brands and many innovations will end up on the next generation airliners. Smaller companies can do a much more focused research and testing on a smaller scale.
This is happening in Pipistrel and this makes them pioneers of the future in aviation.
For example, if we talk about electric airplanes, Pipistrel has been studying them for already 15 years and has been building and selling them for 11.
It is important to understand how they got to this point, knowing this will give us an idea of where they are headed for the future.
Before we go into details, I can tell you that Pipistrel is already working on VTOLs – Vertical Take-Off and Landing, in other words, airplanes able to transport passengers by taking off and landing autonomously.
The technical solutions to enable this are not easy to find, but I was able to understand at first-hand how all of it is slowly taking shape.
How is an electric airplane built
The vision that the founder of Pipistrel had in the past made it possible to get to the point where flying is something extremely simple. Just a few buttons are required, push the throttle forward and after only 8 seconds you’re flying.
His vision was to have an airplane able to be safe and efficient as any other airplane, but it also had to be an airplane that didn’t pollute.
Using his own words: “We can live months without eating, weeks without drinking, but only few seconds without breathing. If we look the world from space, we can see that there is only a thin blue layer around the earth, just that small layer makes us breathe”.
This is to explain that we all have a certain responsibility towards the environment and the atmosphere, but it’s not sufficient to say it, we need to act and Pipistrel is finding solutions for this.
To build an electric airplane it is not sufficient to replace the piston engine with an electric one.
There are many years of study and testing before we can be able to find the right solution to fly safely with an electric airplane. Mainly the battery management system must be studied very carefully.
There is no company on the market that can sell the solutions required, so Pipistrel had to do everything in house. From building their batteries to developing the software for the battery management.
Rules and regulations
Besides technical restrictions there are also regulatory restrictions that don’t make things easy.
There haven’t been electric airplanes earlier so all regulations had to be written from scratch.
Also in this Pipistrel has been able to obtain the required certificates to fly electric airplanes and sell them. They are also collaborating with EASA to develop new norms and regulations for electric airplanes.
This type of collaboration is very important, not just for airplane builders, but also for EASA itself, because for the first time we can see that there is a fruitful and positive collaboration between the public and private sector, something that in the past was very difficult to see in aviation.
Norms and regulations cannot be written by people that are not working everyday on the real solutions that can improve aviation. It is like asking a sailor to tell us what is important for safety in aviation or asking a pilot what is safe when cruising on a ship.
Up to now someone less expert in a specific field used to write rules and regulations, but now, working together with the people that are actually involved in the design of technical solutions, things are different. All of this has been possible thanks to the director of EASA Patrick Ky.
In this way we can see that technical innovation linked to the right norm and regulations give the opportunity to introduce in the market new solutions.
Future technical innovations
The future of aviation will see a big increase of air traffic.
Flight safety is never an easy subject to talk about, because there are many points involved that could not be covered in a short time during my visit to Pipistrel.
What I wanted to know from them was the degree of work they are putting into new solutions, given the increase of air traffic (in commercial aviation and in general aviation).
There are many things to consider, but the most important technical solutions required is an automatic traffic avoidance system.
Something is already there: we know that nowadays all airliners are equipped with a TCAS and this has changed drastically aviation safety.
But it’s still not enough.
Full automated systems
We need a fully automated system that doesn’t rely on human control, but on software systems integrated with each other, able to manage autonomously an airspace.
If it will become reality we will see Uber VTOLs flying over our heads. We will see 30.000 aircrafts flying simultaneously and, knowing the statistics on incidents nowadays, this could bring potentially to one accident per day if we continue to control airspace with existing modern technology and don’t develop new ones.
Pipistrel engineers are developing the technology required to be able to make many airplanes fly at the same moment in a small airspace.
The limitations they are facing in this moment are obviously linked to technical ones. But, also to IT solutions that need to be developed to avoid mid-air collisions between airplanes and with birds.
Other points that need to be kept in consideration and still require the correct solutions are linked to cyber security and an autonomous management for any in flight malfunction of the airplane or VTOL.
For example, if there are 10.000 airplanes flying in a restricted airspace and one of them has a malfunction, how should the system itself react to this?
Today we have human beings managing all of this, but in the future we will need computers to do it.
We also need the public to feel comfortable to fly on an airplane without pilots. They need to know that a system NOT controlled by human beings is much safer than one where we rely on the human thinking.
How to convince the public?
It will be inevitable, probably by 2050 we will get to this point and we have about 30 years to test the systems.
We need to standardize. This is the only way to convince the public.
Standardization has to be done together with other partners that play a key role in developing autonomous systems.
For example, all telecommunication companies need to develop the right technology to let systems communicate with each other. This is not an aviation technology issue, but more of an IT one.
From piston engines to electric ones
When aviation switched from piston engines to jet engines that enabled airplanes to fly at 30.000 feet, passengers had some doubts on flying so high. It took time before it became something normal.
No one ever thought that one day we could have 3.000 airplanes flying in the sky at each moment with about 700.000 people on board.
Today this is happening, and numbers are increasing.
Today we can fly with electric airplanes, something that no one imagined possible just a few years ago. Probably still very few people know that it is possible.
When we talk about electric airplanes we might think of drones, because they use electric motors, but few know that electric airplanes are a consolidated reality.
When I went flying on the Pipistrel Alpha Electro, the first thing I thought to myself was “am I doing the right thing?!”.
When I got there the airplane was on charge (just like if It were a mobile phone).
After removing the plug, it was very simple to get ready for the flight. No fuel check nor oil check, no engine warm-up, simply do a pre-flight check around the airplane, get in and you’re ready to go.
In the cockpit you just need to switch on the battery and push the throttle forward.
Once we got on the runway, it took us only 8 seconds to reach take-off speed. At about 47 knots we were in the air going up at a speed of 900 fpm.
We reached 1.500 feet and I took control of the plane to try it. Easy and very responsive, we flew on a hot windy day, but still we managed to cruise at a speed of 85 knots.
The main difference, compared to other airplanes, was clearly the engine instruments. Instead of monitoring oil temperature and fuel level, I checked Kw and voltage (and battery level).
I must say that I was really impressed with its performance and with how simple it was to prepare and fly.
If today anybody can get on an electric airplane and fly, then VTOLs are definitely going to be reality sooner or later. It won’t take lot before we will see autonomous airplanes flying over our heads. It’s worth to keep an eye on Pipistrel and see how they will develop future technology.