The multinational aerospace and defense company BAE Systems is making a three-pronged push into electric aviation — seeking to leverage its experience across diverse domains to enable eVTOL and other novel aircraft types.
According to Yeshwanth Premkumar, BAE’s business development and strategy lead for electrification in aviation, the company is focusing on three capability thrusts for this emerging market. The first of these is integrated flight controls, combining functions including flight propulsion, actuation, and energy management. The second thrust is battery technology that “can apply in a modular, scalable, and flexible manner agnostic of platform type.” The third is power conversion, encompassing power converters and inverters, motor drives, and actuator electronics.
“In our mind, those three elements are absolutely essential for electric propulsion in aviation and require high integrity and high reliability, because they’re flight critical elements on [an] electric plane,” Premkumar explained. “We looked [at] our core expertise . . . and then aligned it with where the market needs are today [and how to take it] into the future, and said, ‘OK, this is the construct that we want to focus on.’”
In December 2019, BAE announced a memorandum of understanding with the eVTOL developer Jaunt Air Mobility to explore the development of electric energy management systems for urban air mobility (UAM). BAE also last year began talks with Wright Electric to explore the development of flight controls and energy management systems for Wright’s 186-passenger hybrid-electric airliner concept.
While BAE is not yet able to reveal the other aircraft developers it’s working with, Premkumar said the company has “a focus across all markets in aviation today that are that are playing in this realm of electrification, be it regional, sub-regional, all the way down to UAM. We’re also working on . . . applying the same products and technologies in the cargo market in the aviation sector,” he added.
Recently, BAE has revealed more details about some specific projects supporting the electrification of aviation, including its investment in reducing the size and weight of its digital engine controls. According to BAE, its new-generation engine controls are 40% smaller and lighter than their predecessors, yet boast 10 times the processing power, making them ideal for advanced, weight-sensitive electric aircraft.
This week, the company announced it is adapting its fly-by-wire flight control systems for eVTOL and other electric aircraft. BAE fly-by-wire systems first flew on the General Dynamics F-16 and McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 in the mid-1970s; in recent years, they have enabled development of the Leonardo AW609 tiltrotor, Bell 525 helicopter, and Boeing 777x airliner. In total, the company’s fly-by-wire systems have accumulated more than 150 billion flight hours across more than 50 different aircraft types.
BAE said it has been investing in its core technology to make its fly-by-wire systems faster and more compact, with these systems also now 40% smaller and lighter than they were just five years ago. The company said it is developing advanced algorithms to make its flight controls more resilient to cyberattacks, a potential concern for UAM applications.
According to Premkumar, BAE is seeking to develop an integrated electric flight control system comprising multiple elements that could also be offered to customers as individual products. “It just makes sense, as a product-based company, to create that flexibility in our product offering, where we can offer a system, or we can provide individual products,” he explained.
As it moves into electric aviation, BAE is drawing on its experience not only in conventional aviation, but also with the electrification of buses, trucks, and marine vessels. The company has spent decades developing hybrid and fully electric propulsion technologies for commercial and military platforms, on land and at sea — programs that Premkumar has been closely involved with during his 16 years at BAE.
“We started down the path of electrification 30 years ago,” he pointed out. “Everything we’re doing, we see it as a new application for . . . what we’ve already developed, versus having to develop things that are brand-new.”
Rather than starting from scratch, BAE is focused on optimizing its existing products in terms of size, weight, reliability, and safety — “all aspects that these other markets may not care about as much as aerospace does,” Premkumar continued. “So we’re looking at new chemistries for cells, which provide more energy capability. We’re looking at new packaging mechanisms when it comes to material to reduce the weight of the product. We’re looking at how to integrate functionality across multiple different operations on an aircraft so we can consolidate those functions to create more integrated control features.”
That innovation could feed back into other domains as well, Premkumar noted.
“We want to apply this in such a way that we can take these technologies once [they’re] matured and reapply [them] back into the ground market, because a lot of this technology came from ground and maritime transportation,” he said.