Making The First Ever Electric Race Plane

Engineers, mechanics, designers and volunteers have been working for months on the electric race planes that will partake in the first ever electric air race.

We had a chat with the teams that are just months away from flying their electric race planes for the first time.

At which moment did you realize that you were amongst the first ones to ever get an electric race plane airborne? 

“During Spring, while following the other teams on Social Media and interacting with the Air Race E staff, we realised that we were in a good position to fly sooner than some of the other teams,”  Said Pierre Dussaux, Sponsoring and Communications Manager at the official Air Race E team, Nordic Air Racing Team

“We remain calm about it though, as developing a race plane is a long and painstaking task that is full of unknowns that can incur delay”.

Marc Umbricht, Chief Executive Officer and Technical Director at Team Pie Aeronefs, said “My focus has always been to develop the best race plane we could make.  As such, being first has not been a top priority. The fact that we might be first is a welcome surprise!”

Since the first announcement of the 1st Electric Race Plane Flight, what is your progress? 

Nordic Air Racing Team, working on the newly bought Cassutt 111M (a very successful aircraft in the Air Race 1 series) is positive about the progress made since the inaugural first flight announcement was made mid-April.

“So far, the progress has been good, although the assembly of the powertrain in our modified Cassutt has had us face several issues that we did not anticipate during the design process. However, we keep working day and night on the plane to be able to get it in the air and test it as soon as possible,” said Thomas Brødreskift,  Team Principal, Mechanical Integration and Project Manager.

Delays and unforeseen issues are not uncommon when making planes, which the Swiss Team, Pie Aeronefs also have experienced.

“We have had some minor delays in milling our moulds, but now we’re back on track and our mill is turning almost full time. Our batteries are getting ready for final assembly and testing (including a subscale fire test of the whole system), and our wing is almost ready to be closed. Our tail will be manufactured over the course of the next few weeks, and then we will be laminating the fuselage.” said Marc Umbricht (Pie Aeronefs).

How will you be able to predict the performance of the aircraft before taxi/take-off? 

“When entering the Air Race E adventure, we took the conservative approach of using a pre-existing combustion-engine aircraft and converting it into an electric one. This approach allows us to make only slight modifications to the aerodynamics of our plane. We also made sure to keep the weight and balance of the aircraft as close to the original plane as possible, thus making it less unpredictable during the testing phase” said Pierre Dussaux (Nordic Air Racing Team)

The tools we use to simulate the aircraft in flight are very good at determining aerodynamic stability and structural loading, both of which critical to safe flight. They are unfortunately not very good at determining drag, which is the key parameter for estimating the performance of the aircraft.  We have some statistical models and estimates of the drag performance, but the actual top speed will be a bit of a surprise. – Marc Umbricht (Pie Aeronefs)

The Official Air Race E Teams are now preparing for the next steps which will get their electric race planes airborne.

“We now have a long list of ground tests to perform to make sure that the new powertrain operates as planned, and that the pilot’s safety is guaranteed” said Pierre Dussaux (Nordic Air Racing Team)

“Those checks include spinning the propeller at various speeds on battery power, checking that our power electronics behave properly, that our battery and engine cooling systems are nominal, that the Battery Management System is fully operational, and that all our sensors feed continuous and reliable data to the pilot and to the engineering team.

High speed taxiing on the runway will bring the plane in an almost-flying configuration, while giving the opportunity to the pilot to gain confidence in the plane and anticipate some later in-flight behaviour. That will be the last step before we can lift off!”

Seeing the race planes taking shape and getting ready for the big day of the first flight, the teams reflect on things that could have been done differently from the start.

“Considering the small amount of resources, we work with, we can be proud of the hard work provided by our little team, and their motivation to bring us in the air as soon as possible. We have not made any major mistake that would cost us a lot of time to repair, and we are still convinced that the technological choices we made are relevant considering our level of experience and resources.” Said Tomas Brødreskift (Nordic Air Racing Team)

“I would have started earlier!” said Marc Umbricht (Pie Aeronefs) 

“More seriously, I would have planned for full vertical integration from the start.  We initially planned on subcontracting certain components, for example the wing spar.  Working with outside contractors, however, you need to have the parts ready for production before you pick up the phone, and then you need to be ready to wait weeks or months for them to make the parts for you.”

To future Air Race E Teams, do you have any tips or advice based on your experiences of this whole process?

Tomas Brødreskift (Nordic Air Racing Team): Considering it is the first year, I would recommend teams to keep simple design solutions in mind, and if possible, reusing a lot of well-known and tested components. It does not mean that the performance will be degraded, with those electric powertrains anyways I am sure we are going to be able to provide the world with a spectacular experience, very different to what has ever been seen before.

The most important thing this year is to be able to compete, with planes that have had enough time to be tested before, in order to guarantee a high level of safety and high rate of planes being able to cross the finish line. If we can make that happen, I am sure we will have a lot of opportunities to refine our technological choices in the following years and bring cutting-edge solutions for this sport to become a reference in aerospace technology.

Marc Umbricht (Pie Aeronefs): Assemble the right team.  With the right people around you, you can build anything.  Be prepared to completely change your designs when something is not working, but don’t hesitate to start making something that you know is good enough.

And use a good versioning software!

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