Canadian seaplane operator Harbour Air already has proven its ability to quickly turn a concept into reality, taking about nine months from the launch of its eBeaver electric aircraft program to fly the first prototype on December 10, 2019. However, circumstances out of its control—namely, the Covid pandemic and resulting supply chain constraints—have slowed progress considerably and forced at least a one-year delay in expected certification, now targeted for early to mid-2024.
In an interview with FutureFlight, Harbour Air CEO Greg McDougall explained that several electronic components meant for the program’s next prototypes remain on backorder, mainly from China, while the company awaits a new motor from propulsion partner MagniX to arrive in “a few months” 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 on the timing of parts deliveries makes predicting when the airplane will fly an even less exact exercise than usual.
While Harbour Air waits for components for what will eventually fly in revenue service, its first eBeaver—using a battery system McDougall described as not state-of-the-art—continues to perform flight tests, typically limited to 20-minute missions to maintain 50 percent power reserves. “That battery system was not really designed for range; it was designed for safety,” explained McDougall. “It’s something that was used aboard space stations and has a very heavy thermal runaway fire suppression system in it…and the airplane is basically right at [maximum] gross weight with just a pilot on board.”
Vancouver-based Harbour Air awaits delivery of a new battery system from Switzerland’s H55, which, said McDougall, will offer far greater performance efficiencies. “There’s a whole bunch of things that change there in terms of efficiencies, but not least of which the chemistry of the battery doesn’t require all that fire suppression and thermal runway [protection],” he said. “So at the end of the day, we’re looking at a 50 percent change in the efficiency of the battery.”
McDougall said he expects the improved battery will allow for up to three passengers and a pilot in the second prototype, which he insisted will prove more than enough capacity to turn a profit on each flight. In fact, he said he expects the novelty of flying on an electric airplane will at first allow Harbour Air to charge a premium price that could generate excess revenue for donations to charity.
In the longer term, McDougall sees still more promise in a clean-sheet eSTOL airplane on which Harbour Air has partnered with San Francisco-based Airflow that would carry enough passengers to replace the seaplane operator's de Havilland Otters and Cessna Caravans. 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 2,000-pound payload while offering a 500-mile range and the ability to land and take off from just 200 feet of runway.
The smaller Model 100 would carry a 500-pound payload, fly as far as 250 miles, and operate from runways as short as 150 feet. Led by former Airbus engineers, Airflow expects to see its first production airplane enter service in 2025.
Of course, Harbour Air’s airplanes would use floats, which the seaplane operators’ engineers are helping to design for its application under the partnership with Airflow.
“It's certainly looking like that's one that's most compatible with our market,” said McDougall.
“It's not a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, but it doesn't need to be. It can land to take off within very short distances because you've got five motors on each wing and huge airflow over the wings.”
Still, McDougall said he also sees worthy commercial potential for the eBeavers given the proportion of Harbour Air’s business that involves short-stage-length flights of between 20 minutes and a half-hour in duration.
“At the end of the day though, it’s a small number of Beavers in our fleet,” he noted. “We mostly run [19-seat] Twin Otters and [14-seat] converted single Otters. But we’d probably have to replace those aircraft with purpose-built electric aircraft to get up to full capacity.”
While McDougall also noted that the technology as it exists today doesn’t yet support the payload and range capabilities of those aircraft, he said he expects that to change relatively soon. “Two years is a long time in the business,” he stressed. “It didn’t use to be a long time in aerospace but nowadays it is because of advances that have been made in all these technologies. And so there are game-changers coming down the pike and they may change our thinking as we go along. But currently, we’re looking at the Beaver as the sort of entry to e-flight and using it in the same way we are now.”
Along with a new battery pack, the second eBeaver will benefit from a lighter, more compact motor from MagniX, which McDougall called more compatible with a small aircraft than the one that powers the first prototype. In fact, Harbour Air derated the one now in flight testing from 750 horsepower by roughly half, meaning the Beaver carries more weight with it than necessary, he explained. Unfortunately, MagniX has encountered the same supply chain disruptions as Harbour Air and the battery supplier have seen.
“We can’t do anything without the motor and the battery pack,” said McDougall. “I’m just the guy at the end of the line here that’s getting the dates pushed, but the actual details of exactly what the issues are and exactly what things they can’t get I’m not fully cognizant of. But I do know that’s what’s slowing us down. We’re gung-ho here; we have the funding; we have the people; we have everything. We’re ready to go.”
Meanwhile, the first airplane continues to fly, gathering data on stability, the battery system’s ability to react to longer endurance flights, working out flight profiles for the particular airplane, and demonstrating the reliability of the motor. “The next motor will be virtually the same build, but just a different size, “ explained McDougall. And so a lot of these things are just scale. So the batteries arent’ the ones that 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 safety aspects.”
Finally, despite a lot of discussion in industry circles about infrastructure challenges, McDougall expressed less concern with the need for a charging system network than the effect on the overall electricity grid. Although Harbour Air has little control over provincial government-owned power company BC Hydro’s efforts to accommodate the extra capacity it will need, the airline is working with the electricity supplier on its own requirements.
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, Harbour Air plans to recycle the used battery packs from the airplanes as charging stations on its docks.
“What you do to recycle those batteries is you basically turn them into energy storage that can be transmitted into the aircraft,” he said. “So let's say you have a rural location that doesn't have decent charging infrastructure and just has a 120-volt regular sort of household current. Then you would have a charger that would charge that battery pack that's been taken out of service, and when the plane comes, you would just basically transfer that energy from that battery pack into the aircraft.”