Harbor Air’s eBeaver program slowed by supply chain issues
Canadian seaplane operator Harbor Air has already proven its ability to quickly turn a concept into reality, taking around nine months from the launch of its eBeaver electric aircraft program to fly the first prototype on December 10, 2019. However, circumstances beyond its control…namely, the Covid pandemic and resulting supply chain constraints – have significantly slowed progress and forced a delay of at least a year in the now expected certification targeted from early to mid-2024.
In a recent interview with AIN, Harbor Air CEO Greg McDougall explained that several electronic components for the program’s next prototypes remain out of stock, mainly from China. The company also expects a new engine from propulsion partner MagniX to arrive in “a few months” which will be used for a ground test vehicle and another for the second flying example. The second flying eBeaver will also serve as the first of the conversions to enter service, but a lack of visibility into the parts delivery schedule makes predicting when the plane will fly an even less accurate exercise than usual.
While Harbor Air awaits components for what will eventually fly in commercial service, its first eBeaver – using a battery system that McDougall describes as not state-of-the-art – continues to perform flight tests, usually limited to 20 minute missions to maintain 50% power reserve. “This battery system wasn’t really designed for range; it was designed for safety,” McDougall explained. “It’s something that’s been used aboard space stations that has a very heavy thermal runaway fire suppression system in it…and the plane is basically just at [maximum] gross weight with just a pilot on board.
Additionally, Harbor Air is also awaiting delivery of a new battery system from the Swiss H55, which McDougall said will provide much higher performance. “There’s a whole bunch of things that change there in terms of efficiency, but not least the battery chemistry that doesn’t require all that fire suppression and thermal trail [protection],” he said. “So ultimately we’re looking at a 50% change in battery efficiency.”
McDougall said he expects the upgraded battery to accommodate up to three passengers and a pilot in the second prototype, which he says will prove more than enough capacity to generate profits on every flight. In fact, he said he expects the novelty of flying an electric plane will initially allow Harbor Air to charge a premium price which could generate excess revenue for charitable donations.
Longer term, McDougall sees even more promise in a pristine eSTOL aircraft, on which Harbor Air has partnered with San Francisco-based Airflow, that would carry enough passengers to replace the de Havilland Otters and Cessna Caravans of the United States. seaplane operator. Airflow is working on two versions of its proposed aircraft, the larger of which, called the Model 200, would carry eight to 10 passengers and a payload of 2,000 pounds while offering a range of 500 miles and the ability to land and take off from just 200 feet of runway. The smallest model would carry a 500-pound payload, fly up to 250 miles, and operate from runways as short as 150 feet. Led by former Airbus Vahana engineers, Airflow expects to see its first production aircraft enter service in 2025.
Of course, Harbor Air’s planes would use floats, which the seaplane operators’ engineers are helping to design for its application as part of the partnership with Airflow.
“It seems to be the most compatible with our market,” McDougall said. “It’s not a vertical take-off and landing vehicle, but it doesn’t have to be. It can land for takeoff over very short distances because you have five motors on each wing and huge airflow over the wings.
Still, McDougall said he also sees great business potential for eBeavers given the proportion of Harbor Air’s business that involves short flights lasting between 20 minutes and half an hour.
“At the end of the day, though, it’s a small number of beavers in our fleet,” he noted. “We mainly run [19-seat] twin otters and [14-seat] single otters converted. But we will probably have to replace these planes with specially designed electric planes to reach their full capacity.
Although McDougall also noted that the technology as it exists today does not yet support the payload and range capabilities of these aircraft, he said he expects that to change. relatively soon. “Two years is a long time in the business,” he said. “It didn’t last long in aerospace, but today it’s thanks to the advancements that have been made in all of these technologies. And so there are game changers coming and they can change the way we think as we go along. But currently, we think of the Beaver as the kind of entry into electronic flight and use it the same way we do now.
Along with a new battery, the second eBeaver will get a lighter, more compact engine from MagniX, which McDougall said is more compatible with a small plane than the one that powers the first prototype. In fact, Harbor Air has downgraded the one currently flying at 750 horsepower by about half, meaning the Beaver is carrying more weight than necessary, he explained. Unfortunately, MagniX encountered the same supply chain disruptions as Harbor Air and the battery supplier.
“We can’t do anything without the motor and the battery,” McDougall said. “I’m just the guy on the phone here pushing back the dates, but the actual details of what exactly the issues are and exactly what they can’t get I’m not fully aware of. But I do know that that’s what’s slowing us down. We’re excited here; we’ve got the funding; we’ve got the people; we’ve got everything. We’re ready to go.
Meanwhile, the first aircraft continues to fly, collecting data on stability, the battery system’s ability to respond to longer endurance flights, building flight profiles for the aircraft in question, and demonstrating reliability of the motor. “The next motor will be pretty much the same build, just a different size,” McDougall explained, “and so a lot of these things are just scale. So the batteries aren’t the ones we’ll be using in 2.0 but they’re plugged into a similar system, so there’s a lot of value in validating the security aspects.
Finally, despite much discussion in industry circles about infrastructure challenges, McDougall said he was less concerned about the need for a charging system network and more about the effect on the overall power grid. Although Harbor Air has little control over the efforts of provincial government-owned power company BC Hydro to meet the additional capacity it will need, the airline is working with the power supplier on its own needs.
McDougall explained that the eBeavers will require a charging station that differs little from the proprietary systems developed by Tesla for its electric cars. In fact, Harbor Air plans to recycle used aircraft batteries at charging stations on its docks.
“What you do to recycle these batteries is you basically turn them into energy storage that can be transmitted on the plane,” he said. “So let’s say you have a rural area that doesn’t have a decent charging infrastructure and only has a regular 120 volt type of household current. Then you would have a charger that would charge that battery that has been taken out of service, and when the plane arrived, you would simply transfer that energy from that battery into the plane.