The University of Nottingham and Air Race E started last year creating a prototype plane which will use an electric motor, instead of the current petrol-powered engine and the technology developed could shape the future of electric planes.
So, how is the process of building the world’s first electric race plane going?
We caught up with Richard Glassock, Research Fellow in Hybrid Electric Propulsion Systems for Aircraft at the University of Nottingham Faculty of Engineering, to find out!
2020 has been a challenging year, but there has surely been some progress on the Air Race E Prototype, what news can you share with us?
We have made progress in several areas including technical items for the demonstrator aircraft and background program development for broader applications. The main components of the propulsion system were assembled, checked and fitted to Jeff Zaltmans Cassutt to ensure the modelling and design work was accurate. We intend to make a minimum of changes to the original airframe in this first phase of the project and we found the custom fittings to install the components all worked as expected. We then removed the system from the aircraft to install in the UoN PEMC laboratory.
One of the PEMC lab dynamometer rigs was selected to test the Phase 1 propulsion system. The rig can offer a fully adjustable load to the motor and record all mechanical and electrical data, motor speed, torque, current, voltage etc. Initially we use laboratory power supply, fed from the grid and with very high capacity, but the battery system can be tested on the rig also. We are looking to ensure the motor controller is tuned appropriately and that the system is fully dependable while also checking various system parameters like temperatures and required flow rates for coolants etc.
We have been considerable delayed but are on course!
Finite Element Analysis (FEA) modelling and checks of the mechanical stress on system components.
As we are coming to an end of this year, how do you see the process continuing in 2021?
Once the lab testing is complete in January, we will remount the system into the Cassutt for final integration. The battery system, cooling system and many detail fixtures and fastenings will be completed, and the pilot interface, controls and instruments fitted. When the system is completely fitted, systems testing, and rigorous ground run trials will be undertaken. Once everyone is happy with the results and any problems resolved, detail modifications of the airframe will be finished. At this stage the aircraft will be ready for Jeff and his team together with the LAA to work together for flight testing activities, while we continue to provide technical support.
The YASA motor, Sevcon Inverter and cooling system installed on the UoN PEMC laboratory dynamometer rig.
Have there been any unexpected challenges so far?
Apart from the obvious world disruption, there have been only the usual challenges really. My colleague Dr Alessandro Galassini is the electric motor drives expert and is responsible for the laboratory testing work in this project. It is fair to say that the electrical drive and control system is really very complex, and definitely beyond the usual skillset of a typical mechanical or aerospace engineer.
At this stage, I would think that Ale might be finding some of these unexpected type challenges, and I am sure there will be some more to come, and this is why we are interested in the project after all.
The UoN Air Race E Demonstrator Electrical Propulsion System (EPS) installed on the Cassutt III Aircraft.
How are the laboratory tests on the Beacon Demonstrator propulsion system going?
So far, we have encountered no significant problems. We should divide between more electrical and control programming issues, and mechanical issues. Ale could comment better on the former, but in terms of the basic mechanical system, everything is looking good. The YASA motor required extensive work to design a suitable fitting bracket, and propeller spindle shaft adapter. All these components appear to be working fine so far.
The initial running of the electrical system required some minor software and coding amendments for the controller which YASA assisted with by sending a specialist engineer to our facility. This is one of the areas which builders and competitors will need to prioritize. Hopefully OEM suppliers will evolve improved user friendly, plug and play type equipment over time, and I have seen good examples from automotive conversion kits, but it will usually be necessary to have good technical back-up in computer interfaces to integrate and tune these new electrical drives.
We would like to congratulate Richard and his team for making such great progress, and we can’t wait to see what 2021 will bring!