In early October 2018, Zunum Aero officially launched the development of a six to twelve seat hybrid-electric aircraft for regional flights. The company plans to complete this aircraft within five years. So who is Zunum, and what is the importance of this announcement?
Zunum – Mayan for hummingbird – is a start-up aircraft manufacturer based in Kirkland, Washington. Backed by Boeing HorizonX and Jetblue Technology Ventures, the company has been working since 2013 on a family of hybrid electrical regional aircraft with up to 50 seats.
Why Hybrid-Electric Aircraft?
In common with almost everyone else, the aviation industry has long been researching ways to become greener. The primary problem is battery life. Up until now it has been impossible to make a battery which would allow an aircraft to fly to its destination and also fulfill the FAA requirement of having 45 minutes worth of flying in reserve, without having a battery which would be prohibitively heavy. In other words, to have the battery required for a flight, the aircraft would not be able to get off the ground safely!
Zunum’s New ZA10
Zunum seems to have found the solution. It will use a gas turbine engine which is a modified version of a helicopter engine – the Ardiden 3Z made by Safran Helicopter Engines. It will couple this to a generator which will deliver 500 kw of electric power. This will be enough for a couple of powerful motors. Finally, the propellers will be replaced with ducted fans, which can develop more thrust than a traditional propeller.
Zunum is aiming for regional routes rather than the more ambitious long haul travel, providing a clean alternative to high speed intercity trains The company hopes that its innovative aircraft will be able to provide air transportation on routes up to 700nm.
The ZA10 will be a sleek white aircraft with slender wings, with two ducted fans mounted at the back. It will have space for up to twelve passengers. But the company is starting off development more modestly, using a Rockwell Turbo Commander 840, a small aircraft with eight seats. Zunum will firstly replace one engine with its own electric motor. They will install batteries, then add a generator, and lastly add the ducted fans. If all goes well during testing, everything will be put into the new aircraft.
Zunum hopes that testing will begin in 2019, with first flight a year later, and first deliveries in 2022. The company has started surveying four potential vendors – GE Aviation, Honeywell, Rolls-Royce and United Technology Aerospace Systems – to supply the electric generators. According to Zunum, the new plane will burn half the fuel of a similar conventional aircraft, and costs are also expected to be comparable.
First Customer Already Booked
There already appears to be interest from potential customers. JetSuite, a small, US-based charter airline, hopes to acquire one of the first ZA10s in 2022, and has plans to operate more as they become available. The future for hybrid-electric aircraft is looking good!
Helen is a retired pilot and flight instructor who has traveled around the world and visited more than 70 countries. An award-winning journalist and author, she has been writing for world-class aviation-focused publications.