We have always associated the Rolls-Royce badge with elegance, luxury, and opulence in automobiles. Those familiar with the airline industry also know that Rolls-Royce also makes some of the most powerful aircraft engines. And it isn’t ranked next to General Electric as the world’s second-largest maker of aircraft engines for nothing.
Recently, Rolls-Royce has come one step closer to chalking up another heady milestone. Its ambitious project of building the world’s fastest all-electric plane has completed ground-testing of technology, and is all set to take to the air.
All the technology has been tested on a full-scale replica of the plane’s core, called the “ionBird”, including a 500-hp electric powertrain that packs enough punch to set world speed records and a battery with enough energy to supply 250 homes.
The plane is part of a Rolls-Royce initiative called ACCEL (Accelerating the Electrification of Flight). The ACCEL project team includes key partners Yasa, the electric motor and controller manufacturer, and aviation start-up Electroflight. The team has been developing the technology while adhering to the UK government’s social distancing and other health guidelines. The systems will soon be integrated into the firm’s “Spirit of Innovation” plane. There is a long history of iron-birds in aviation for testing propulsion systems ahead of the flight. Still, in this case, the company named the test airframe ‘ionBird,’ after the zero-emission energy source propelling the aircraft.
“From trains to planes, our transport of the future will be powered by clean, electric sources—with companies like Rolls-Royce developing the tech to help meet our net-zero ambitions. The completion of ground-testing for the government-backed ACCEL project is not only a step towards an exciting world record attempt but a leap towards developing all-electric and hybrid-electric planes that one day could ferry large numbers of passengers around the world,” said UK Business and Industry Minister Nadhim Zahawi.
The dedicated team has tested every component of the system. One of the tests runs the propeller up to full speed (approximately 2,400 rpm) using the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for aircraft propulsion. When at full power during the flight-testing phase, it will propel the aircraft to more than 300 mph (480 kph), setting a new world speed record for electric flight. Over 6,000 cells are packaged in the battery for maximum safety, minimum weight, and full thermal protection.
Since January, the company’s engineering and test pilots have spent hours optimizing the system and developing operating procedures for electric flight. They were generating gigabytes of data every hour of operation, which the team has analyzed to improve performance wherever possible.
“Rolls-Royce is committed to playing a leading role in reaching net-zero carbon by 2050. The completion of ground-testing for the ACCEL project is a great achievement for the team and is another important step towards a world record attempt. This project is also helping to develop Rolls-Royce’s capabilities and ensure that we remain a leader in delivering the electrification of flight, an important part of our sustainability strategy,” said Dr. Rob Watson, Director of Electrical at Rolls-Royce.
Bremont will be the official timing partner for the all-electric speed record attempt. The British luxury watchmaker has also helped develop the plane’s cockpit design, which will feature a stopwatch. In contrast, the company has machined canopy release parts at its Henley-on-Thames manufacturing facility.
The first flight is planned for later this year, and is aimed at beating the current all-electric flight world record early next year. Half of the project’s funding is provided by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), in partnership with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK.
“The significance of reaching this milestone should not be underestimated. The ACCEL team is pioneering the integration of high-performance batteries, motors, and drives to deliver an electric propulsion system in an ambitious flight test program. These technologies and the systems integration needed to utilize them hold great potential for future sustainable aviation, which is why the ATI is proud to support the project,” said Mark Scully, Head of Technology for Advanced Systems & Propulsion at the Aerospace Technology Institute.
The ACCEL project is a series of firsts for Rolls-Royce’s journey towards net-zero carbon by 2050. It’s the first Rolls-Royce project to use offsetting to make the whole program carbon neutral. Further, the company is looking to inspire young people to consider STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) careers with the ACCEL project. It has developed downloadable materials aimed at primary school children around the project. These are linked to the UK curriculum, and everything can be downloaded from the website. (Story and photos courtesy of Rolls-Royce)