Aircraft Electrification Meets Digitalization

Electric cars are quite commonplace in the 21st century, with more than 6 million electric cars worldwide. While they only garnered popularity in the last decade, it is predicted that the demand for electric cars is only going to increase, meaning that they will become more affordable and contain better battery technology. This is only, however, if the electricity used to power these vehicles comes from renewable sources.

Beyond the electrification of ground transport, aerospace manufacturers are devising ways in which aircraft can benefit from going electric. Since the global aviation industry accounts for about 12% of CO2 emissions, this could have a tremendous impact on carbon emissions. With the world accustomed to cheap flights to any part of the world, aircraft electrification may not appeal to eager travelers. In fact, limiting air travel to only those who can afford the price spikes will further widen the divides in society.

On top of the divisional ramifications, switching to electrical motors sounds simple in essence, but it is not as easy for aircraft as it is for ground vehicles. Director of Aerospace Industry for Simcenter Solutions at Siemens, Thierry Olbrechts, explains that power density is key here. For instance, an electric motor for a train has a power density of 1kW/kg, but the required power density for a flying electric motor is between 10 and 15 kW/kg.

Thierry points out that there are several advantages to electric propulsion units, two being that they are more reliable and easier to maintain. However, the need to increase motor power while reducing mass leads to significant thermal management challenges. More than that, by taking away structural mass, the structural stiffness of the motor may be compromised which can have a negative effect on electromagnetic efficiency. The answer to these problems: the digitalization of engineering processes to improve electric aircraft development.

Innovators at Siemens are devising simulation and testing solutions designed to support this type of digital transformation. They are providing scalable and collaborative solutions for dynamic, model-based systems engineering. By creating digital twins of complete aircraft, teams of engineers can assess and evaluate how their systems interact with each other. This produces a better picture for how we can optimize the overall design of electric aircraft.

So far, VoltAero, a startup company based out of Royan, France, is embracing digitalization in their drive toward electric aircraft. Recently, they developed an electric hybrid plane that can travel up to 200 kilometers on electric power only. Presently, the Cassio-1 prototype is equipped to transport two passengers, but VoltAero is working on a ten-passenger model, and eventually, plans for a 50-passenger carrier in the near future.

Until then, Siemens tools have been contributing a great deal to the application of electrification to air travel. Engineers at Siemens are designing electric engines and batteries, carrying out test flights, and perfecting their engineering processes.  Despite this, there is another crucial part of electrification’s success: eliminating electromagnetic interference.

With 800 volts and several hundred amperes traveling through the circuits that run the length of an electric plane, ample insulation is needed to isolate systems and prevent electromagnetic interference problems. Using electromagnetic solutions by Siemens, VoltAero engineers can create digital twins to aid them in designing the safest possible aircraft by allowing them to predict overall performance. Eventually, with such strides in terms of aircraft electrification, we will see more and more fully electric aircraft traverse the skies.

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