The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

For Aircraft Engine Giant Safran, Opportunity Knocks on the Door Leading to Electric Aviation

Aircraft engine maker Safran is expanding its horizons in electric aviation, with three new programs in the works. The company's EngineUs family of electric motors is set to be used to power aircraft being developed by a pair of French start-ups, VoltAero and Aura Aero, and the first of these could be in service during 2023. At the same time, Safran is supporting Bye Aerospace in its efforts to bring its eFlyer family of all-electric aircraft to market.

Like rival aero engines group Rolls-Royce, Safran now places high priority on the burgeoning electric aviation sector, which is bolstered by growing calls for aviation to aspire to net-zero carbon objectives. Rolls-Royce is working with Embraer and Scandinavian airline Wideroe on studies focused on the possible development of a green regional airliner, and it is already providing electric propulsion systems for Tecnam’s new PVolt commuter model and for Vertical Aerospace’s VX-4 eVTOL aircraft.

Aura Aero’s two-seat Integral E aerobatic trainer will feature Safran’s smart EngineUs electric motor, which is capable of generating more than 100 kW, and the GeneUsGrid distribution and protection system. The manufacturer expects the prototype, which is based on the piston-powered Integral R model, to fly for the first time later in 2022 and to be delivered beginning in 2023.

Meanwhile, engineers with Safran’s Electrical & Power division are working with their new partner to define the electric propulsion architecture for Aura Aero’s proposed hybrid-electric 19-seat Electric Regional Aircraft (ERA), which is intended to enter commercial service in 2027.

Safran is close to delivering the first motors for the Integral E, which will provide flight training organizations with a reduced-carbon option, and expects to quickly integrate these with the prototype. The certification task is expected to be simplified through the high degree of commonality with the Integral R, which uses a Lycoming engine.

However, on April 12 an Integral R prototype was destroyed in a crash during a test flight that is being investigated by France’s BEA agency. Both test pilots on board were killed in the accident, which occurred at Prat-Bonrepaux, 60 miles south of Toulouse, at 11:12 a.m. local time, soon after takeoff from Saint-Girons/Antichau airfield.

According to Hervé Blanc, Safran Electrical & Power’s general manager and executive vice president of the Power division, the ERA model is likely to feature a combination of the EngineUs motors and a turbogenerator. However, he stressed that Aura Aero is still considering options for the complete powertrain, which could include fuel cells, and will base the final decision on the new studies, which cover both propulsive and non-propulsive elements of the overall system. He estimated that for the commuter aircraft’s estimated 900-mile range, the propulsion system will likely need to deliver between 300 and 600 kW of power.

For VoltAero, which was founded by former Airbus executive Jean Botti, Safran is providing EngineUs motors for the prototype of the company’s four-seat Cassio hybrid-electric 330 eSTOL aircraft, which will have a power rating of 330 kW. It is also supporting the development of the six-seat Cassio 480 and ten-seat Cassio 600 models.

Production versions of the Cassio aircraft will be powered by three of Safran’s 100-kW EngineUs 100 electric motors and a 370-hp internal-combustion engine, collectively driving a five-bladed pusher propeller. The first Cassio 330 model is due to be delivered in the fourth quarter of 2023, and VoltAero is planning for production rates of up to 150 aircraft per year.

“We have flown a lot with VoltAero’s prototype, and this has been very beneficial as we work on the next generation of systems to support the serial production aircraft, and the progress has been good,” Blanc said. “This is a very important market because we can reuse the key technologies [for multiple aircraft programs]."

Safran views the new partnership with Aura Aero as a prime opportunity to expand its role in electric aviation. “In every way, these projects are in line with our strategic aims as they feature breakthrough technologies, have a low carbon footprint, and are electrically powered,” Blanc commented. “It also marks two Toulouse-based companies, both firmly established in the Occitanie region’s industrial fabric, working together.” Belgium-based aerostructures group Sonaca is also a partner in the Aura Aero program.

Blanc told FutureFlight that Safran’s GeneUsGrid distribution and protection system will play a critical part in managing the complex and high-powered electrical systems. “It is vital to be able to safely like this, which could be extremely dangerous,” Blanc explained.

The system, which will incorporate fire-protection capability developed in partnership with a company called Pyroalliance, will have multiple contractors to protect against malfunctions and also constant health monitoring so that there is time to react in the event of a fire caused by electrical arcs. Safran’s capability in this area is bolstered by technology developed by Zodiac Aerospace, which it acquired in 2018.

For the Integral E, Aura Aero has chosen the Epic Ecosystem batteries developed by U.S.-based Electric Power Systems, in which Safran is an investor. The technology includes a DC fast-charging system that will take around 20 minutes to recharge the batteries.

Like Rolls-Royce, Safran is eyeing large production volumes in the electric aircraft sector and has been investing in manufacturing processes that draw on the experience of the automotive sector to achieve high volumes of production at competitive prices. Blanc also feels that the mature customer and product support network developed by Safran worldwide could offer a competitive edge, especially for new aircraft manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Safran Electrical & Power has assigned around 50 engineers to work with colleagues from both Safran Aircraft Engines and its partner GE Aviation to develop the hybrid propulsion system that Safran and GE Joint Venture (CFM) have announced as the RISE project. The CFM International joint venture between Safran and GE has been tasked with providing propulsion for a medium-haul airliner that is projected to enter service in 2035.