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An electric aircraft is an aircraft that runs on electric motors rather than internal combustion engines, with electricity coming from fuel cells, solar cells, ultracapacitors, power beaming, and/or batteries.

The advantages of electric aircraft include increased safety due to decreased chance of mechanical failure, less risk of explosion or fire in the event of a collision, less noise, along with environmental benefits associated with the potential elimination of consumption of fossil fuels and resultant emissions.

The main disadvantage of electric aircraft is decreased range. The range can be increased by adding solar cells to the aircraft's body to create a solar airplane. However, the plane's surface area must be large compared to its weight for them to have a significant impact on range.

Currently flying electric aircraft include manned and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Regenerative flight

Recent studies indicate that an electric aircraft can easily add a regenerative soaring feature, whereby its propeller, using symmetrical blade sections, can be used as a turbine to recharge stored energy when the aircraft encounters an updraft. An aircraft using regenerative soaring can potentially remain aloft indefinitely; at high altitudes, the energy available from vertical atmospheric motion can exceed available solar power by a factor of ten or more.

Experimental projects

1970s and 1980s


The unmanned AstroFlight Sunrise, the result of an ARPA contract, made the world's first solar-powered flight from Bicycle Lake, a dry lakebed on the Fort Irwin Military Reservation, on 4 November 1974. The improved Sunrise II flew on 27 September 1975 at Nellis AFB.

Solar Riser

The world’s first official flight in a solar powered, man carrying aircraft took place on April 29, 1979. The Solar Riser was built by Larry Mauro and was based on the Easy Riser biplane hang glider. The aircraft used photovoltaic cells that produced 350 watts at 30 volts, which charged a Hughes 500 helicopter battery, which in turn powered the electric motor. The aircraft was capable of powering the motor for 3 to 5 minutes, following a 1.5 hour charge, enabling it to reach a gliding altitude.

Gossamer Penguin and Solar Challenger

The Gossamer Penguin, a smaller version of the human powered Gossamer Albatross was completely solar powered. A second prototype, the Solar Challenger, flew 262 km (163 mi) from Paris to England in 1981.

Solar Challenger

Designed by Dr. Paul MacCready the Solar Challenger set an altitude record of 14,300 feet. On 7 July 1981, the aircraft, under solar-power, flew 163 miles from Cormeilles-en-Vexin Airport near Parismarker across the English Channelmarker to RAF Manstonmarker near Londonmarker, flying for 5:23.

Solair 1

The Solar 1 was developed by Günther Rochelt and based on a Farner canard design. It employed 2.500 wing-mounted solar cells giving an output of with an aircraft weight of . The aircraft first flew at Unterwössenmarker, Germanymarker on 21 August 1983. It completed a flight of 5:41, although the flight was partially sustained by thermal soaring and not purely electrically powered. The aircraft is now displayed at the German Museum in Munichmarker.

NASA Pathfinder and Helios

NASA's Pathfinder and Helios were a series of solar and fuel cell system-powered unmanned aircraft. AeroVironment, Inc. developed the vehicle under NASAmarker's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology program.


Solar Flight's Sunseeker flying over Southern California's high desert


In 1990 the solar powered airplane Sunseeker successfully flew across the USA, piloted by Eric Raymond. It used a small battery charged by solar cells on the wing to drive a propeller for takeoff, and then flew on direct solar power and took advantage of soaring conditions when possible.

The Sunseeker II, built in 2002, was updated in 2005-2006 with a more powerful motor, larger wing, lithium battery packs and updated control electronics. As of Dec, 2008 it was the only manned solar powered airplane in flying condition and is operated regularly by Solar Flight. In 2009 it became the first solar-powered aircraft to cross the Alps, 99 years after the first crossing of the Alps by an aircraft.

icare 2

The icare 2 was developed at the department of Luft und Raumfahrttechnik at the University of Stuttgartmarker, Germanymarker. It featured a wing span, a wing area of 25 square metres and a weight of . The aircraft had a short-term power output of and required only to sustain level flight.


Test Flight of “Soaring” in 1994
Summary of Configuration and Performance Parameter of “Soaring”
's first solar powered aircraft "Soaring" is designed and created by Dr. Danny H. Y. Li and Professor Zhao Yong in 1992 who were graduated from the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (now called as Aeronautical Science and Engineering Institute) majoring in Aircraft Design and Applied Mechanics, and "Soaring" is the first solar powered aircraft in Chinese history in possession of intellectual property (ZL94209702.5, 1994.10.30, China). The body and wings of “Soaring” are made of the carbon fiber, Kevlar and wood and others, and there is the winglet to increase the wing-span and reduce the induced drag, thereby to improve the flight performance. The available surface of upper wing and horizontal stabilizer are interactively laid by wafer type mono-crystalline silicon solar cells which are easily to be broken, so there are GPPS film and buffer layer between the top surface of upper wing and solar cells. The special nickel-hydrogen cell arrays are used by the aircraft to store the solar energy, and which serve as the intermediate switch to power the low-speed propeller equipped with the decelerator. The flying aircraft can be seen and controlled by a telescope or human’s eyes, and the improved Ftb.1024 is used as its flight control equipment. In order to reduce the weight, the aircraft is designed to be launched by hands, and equipped with the sleigh type landing gear. Limited by the conditions at the time, the payload of "Soaring" is very small.


Antares 20E

The Antares 20E is an electric, self-launching sailplane with a 42-kW DC/DC brushless motor (called EM42) and lithium-ion batteries. It can climb up to 3,000 meters with fully charged cells. [335114]

Solar Impulse

Bertrand Piccard, who piloted the first balloon to circle the world non-stop, unveiled the prototype design for the Solar Impulse, an aircraft meant to repeat that feat using only solar power. Called the HB-SIA, the prototype aircraft consists of wing covered with solar cells with a span of 200 feet (~60 meters). Despite that huge wing span, the craft will employ lightweight materials to tip the scales at only 3,300 pounds (~1,500 kilograms). That combination will allow the plane to fly at just 28 miles per hour (45 kilometers per hour), a speed that will keep energy consumption low, allowing the solar panels to not only power the craft during the day, but to also store up enough energy to keep it flying at night. Construction of the HB-SIA began in June and is expected to be complete by the summer of 2009.

However, the HB-SIA is not expected to circle the globe. Instead, it will serve as a prototype to test both the flying characteristics and the energy performance of the design. The craft will feature minimal instrumentation and a non-pressurized cockpit, which forces it to stay below 28,000 feet (~8500 meters) in elevation. Test flights are expected to begin in the (northern hemisphere's) fall (autumn) of 2008, and the first all-night flight should occur in 2009. The Solar Impulse team hopes to build the final aircraft and fly it across the Atlantic by 2011, followed sometime later by the circumnavigation attempt. Piccard initiated the Solar Impulse project in 2003, but since then the team has grown to a multi-disciplinary team of 50 specialists from six countries, assisted by about 100 outside advisers.

The aircraft was publicly unveiled on 26 June 2009 at Dubendorf Airport near Zurich, Switzerlandmarker. In its present configuration it has a wingspan of , weighs and it powered by four electric motors. The aircraft has over 11,000 solar cells on its wings and horizontal stabilizer. Power from the solar cells is stored in lithium polymer batteries and used to drive propellers turning at speed of 200–400 rpm. Take-off speed is and cruising speed is .

APAME Electra

The Association pour la Promotion des Aéronefs à Motorisation Électrique (APAME) (English: Association for the Promotion of Electric Powered Aircraft) first flew their Electra electric-powered open-cockpit airplane at 1150 hrs (local) on Sunday, 23 December 2007 at Aspres sur Buech airfield, Hautes Alpesmarker, Francemarker. Test pilot Christian Vandamme flew the strut-equipped aircraft for 48 minutes, covering 50 km (31 statute miles). The Electra is powered by an 18-kW (24 hp) disk-brush electrical motor driven by a 47 kg (104 lb) lithium polymer battery power pack.


The Pegasus unmanned aerial vehicle is an aircraft that flies strictly on electric engines and PV-solar power. It was developed by VITO and is intended for use in the GMES-program, for missions such as environmental monitoring.

First AA battery powered aircraft

Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. and undergraduates at the Tokyo Institute of Technology teamed up to build an aircraft powered by 160 AA battery cells and successfully flew it for a distance of in July, 2006.

Boeing-FCD Project

The FCD (Fuel Cell Demonstrator) is a project lead by Boeing that uses a Diamond Super Dimona HK-36 motor glider as a test bed for a fuel cell powered light airplane research project.

Successful test flights took place in February and March 2008.

Boeing's partners in the project are Intelligent Energy of Britain (fuel-cell); Diamond Aircraft of Austria (Airframe); Spanish Sener (control system); Spanish Aerlyper (integrate motor with airframe); Advanced Technology Products, a U.S. company (motor, batteries, flight testing).

QinetiQ Zephyr

The QinetiQ Zephyr is a lightweight solar-powered unmanned aerial vehicle engineered by the United Kingdom defence firm, QinetiQmarker. It is of carbon-fibre construction, weighs 30 kg (66 lbs) and can be equipped with wings of up to 18 metres (59 feet) in span. It uses sunlight to charge lithium-sulphur batteries during the day, which power the aircraft at night. The aircraft has been designed for use in observation and communications relay.

The Zephyr holds the unofficial world record for the longest duration unmanned flight with a 82-hour, 61,000 foot flight in July 2008.


The SkySpark is a joint project of engineering company DigiSky and Polytechnic University of Turinmarker. The two-seat Pioneer Alpi 300 has a brushless electric motor powered by lithium polymer batteries. The aircraft achieved a world record of for a human-carrying electric aircraft on 12 June 2009.

Green Pioneer Ι

Test Flight of “Green Pioneer I” in 2004
Summary of Configuration and Performance Parameter of “Green Pioneer I”
"Green Pioneer" Solar Powered Aircraft Research programme was announced on the press conference of the 4th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition and was launched in 2002. Tthe goal of the programme was the systematic study on the issues related to the solar powered aircraft accompanied with the development of a special type solar powered aircraft, and thereby to establish the more comprehensive scientific and technical basis for the sustainable development of China's solar powered aircrafts. The programme was implemented by the New Concept Aircraft (Zhuhai) Co., Ltd., China Aviation Industry Development Research Center, and China Academy of Space Technology, and Dr. Danny H. Y. Li was the leader and chief designer of the project.

"Green Pioneer Ι" with the compound wing gets a bigger active area of solar cells while reducing the weight of the whole aircraft and protecting the structural strength. There are the flexible solar cells arrays with high conversion rate laid on the upper and lower wings to serve as the energy collector to power the propulsion, control and mission systems. This layout facilitates the all-directional light collection (eg, the direct light, side light, and reflected light by the cloud and ground, etc.), and the utilization of solar energy is significantly raised. The aerodynamic layout of compound wing is inspired by the European assumption of “Joined Wing Aircraft” in 1920s, while "Green Pioneer Ι" is the first in the world to achieve a breakthrough in the engineering sense. As the "Green Pioneer Ι" is essentially different to the assumption of “joined wing aircraft”, it obtains the national patent (ZL01270983.2, 2002.8.21 China). The wind tunnel experiments and flight experiments of "Green Pioneer I" show that the compound wing has more advantages than the existing solar powered aircrafts, for example, it has a bigger active area of solar cells than others with same weight, and there is a better stability and maneuverability in the lower troposphere.

Production aircraft


Alisport Silent Club

The first commercially available production electric aircraft was the Alisport Silent Club self-launching sailplane, first tested in 1997. It is optionally driven by a DC electric motor running on of batteries that provide 1.4 kWh of power.



In April 2007 the Electric Aircraft Corporation began offering complete electric ultralights and engine kits under the ElectraFlyer brand name, to convert existing ultralight aircraft to electric power, in what is the first commercial offering of an electric aircraft.

The engine package weighs 26 lbs and an efficiency of 90% is claimed by the company. The battery consists of two lithium-polymer battery packs which provides 1.5 hours of flying in the trike application.

In January 2008 the company introduced their new ElectraFlyer-C at the Sebring Light Sport Aircraft Show. This aircraft is a converted Monnett Moni motor glider equipped with an 18-hp electric motor, regenerative-braking-capable controller package and two lithium polymer battery packs. The engine weighs 29 lbs and the battery packs weigh 78 lbs total. The aircraft has a climb rate of 500 ft/min, cruise of 70 mph and an endurance of 90 minutes. It is capable of being recharged from a 110 volt source in six hours or from a 220 volt source in two hours. The aircraft began flying in May 2008 and was demonstrated before the crowds on August 2 at AirVenture 2008.

In April 2009 the ElectraFlyer-C prototype was offered for sale on eBay. The designer intends to use the funds from the sale, plus a Lindbergh Foundation grant of $10,580 to complete two-place design that will eventually qualify for LSA status. The new design wity incorporate composite construction, detachable wingtips to aid storage and will be powered by a electric engine. Its design goals include a 28:1 glide ratio and a cruise speed of for two hours.

Sonex Aircraft

During AirVenture 2007 Sonex Aircraft announced that they are working on a series of alternate power initiatives, including an electric-powered aircraft. The announcement included the display of a Waiex motor glider with a proof-of-concept prototype electric powerplant installed in it.

Yuneec International E430

A new Chinesemarker aircraft was announced in 2009. The Yuneec International E430 is a two seat, V tailed, composite aircraft with a high-aspect ratio wing. Take-off speed is 40 mph and top speed is 93 mph. The aircraft is being developed as a homebuilt aircraft for the US market.

The prototype E430 was displayed at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in July 2009, by which time it had flown over 22 hours. The company claims that the battery packs have an expected lifespan of 1500 hours and cost US$7000 each, with the aircraft carrying 3-5 battery packs, giving two to two and half hours endurance. The batteries can be recharged in 3 hours. The company projects that by the time the first customers require replacement battery packs that improved and less expensive ones will be available. Projected price for a commercially available light sport aircraft production version of the E430 is US$89,000.

Flightstar e-Spyder

The e-Spyder is an electric-powered version of the Flightstar Spyder ultralight, developed by Flightstar Sportplanes president Tom Peghiny of South Woodstock, Connecticutmarker, USAmarker in cooperation with electric engine manufacturer Yuneec. The aircraft replaces the Spyder's two-stroke engine with a Yuneec electric motor and two lithium-polymer battery packs which provide a 40 minute endurance. The aircraft was exhibited at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in July 2009 and is intended as a commercially available kit plane, forecast to be available for under US$25,000.

See also


  1. Power Beaming
  2. Battery-Powered Plane

External links

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