Researchers at Kyushu University have plans on the drawing board to develop a small electric aircraft for use as a private plane or airborne taxi.
Having conducted a successful test flight with a 1:10 scale unmanned test plane, the researchers are now making basic designs for a full-scale model to be completed within the current academic year. Despite numerous obstacles, which include securing research funding and safety issues, the researchers are confident they can make a commercially viable aircraft.
The work is being done by a research group led by professor Shigeru Aso of the Graduate School of Engineering, who specializes in aerospace fluid dynamics, and the Kyushu Koku-Uchu Kyokai (Kyushu aerospace association), a private-sector organization formed by aviation experts.
The plane they envision will be 11 meters long, 13 meters wide and 4 meters tall. The wings will fold for parking. Rechargeable batteries will power the propellers and allow the plane to fly up to two hours each flight, with a range of roughly 500 kilometers. When flying in Kyushu, for example, the researchers hope it will be able to travel from Fukuoka to Yakushima in Kagoshima Prefecture. The plane will have room for four to six passengers and carry a price tag of about 7 million yen ($87,700).
The electric airplane will produce no emissions and suppress noise with ducted propellers. Aso says that when he calculated conversion rates of energy to power, aviation gasoline had a rate of 30 percent, while electricity was 75 percent.
The airplane would require a runway about 400 meters long. Rural airports that serve dual uses as farm roads are likely candidates.
"It doesn't make much noise, so we might be able to use it at existing airports, too," Aso says.
During a test flight in May in the town of Genkai, Saga Prefecture, the test plane was controlled with a handheld radio transmitter. It took off, ascended, leveled off, circled and landed. Aso says the test confirmed that the model flies smoothly.
The researchers' biggest roadblock is securing funding for research and development. Aso says that building a prototype will cost around 200 million yen. The researchers are now seeking out companies and other interested parties for help.
According to Aso, many countries are becoming more intrigued by electric aircraft and some have projects under way to develop their own. Although a number of hurdles remain--ensuring safety, permission for production, etc.--Aso says, "I want to take advantage of Japan's specialties in lightweight, small and affordable manufacturing to build a highly reliable electric airplane."
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