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Zunum Aero planes
Artwork shows Zunum Aero’s hybrid electric airplanes in flight. (Zunum Aero Illustration)

Four years after its founding, Zunum Aero is finally going public with a plan to build hybrid electric airplanes that could revolutionize service to regional airports in the 2020s.

“This is our coming out of stealth,” said Ashish Kumar, the founder and CEO of the company, which is headquartered in Kirkland, Wash.

Zunum, whose name comes from the Mayan word for hummingbird, aims to develop 10- to 50-seat aircraft that can pave the way for what Kumar calls a “golden age of regional travel.”

To follow through on that vision, the company has patented its concept and has won backing from the Boeing Co. as well as from JetBlue Technology Ventures, a subsidiary of JetBlue Airways.

“Boeing is investing in Zunum because we feel its technology development is leading this emerging and exciting hybrid-electric market space,” Steve Nordlund, vice president of strategy for Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said in a statement.

Bonny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures, was similarly bullish. She said Zunum was likely to “light up a vast network of underutilized airports and re-invent regional travel.”

The idea is to create aircraft that are well-suited for routes that have fallen into disuse due to trends that have dominated the airline industry over the past few decades – trends that favor larger aircraft serving bigger airports.

Kumar cited figures suggesting that only 2 percent of the nation’s more than 5,000 airports account for 96 percent of today’s air traffic. That means the bigger airports are jammed, while scheduled service from the smaller airports is costly, if it exists at all.

Zunum Aero says the greater efficiencies of hybrid electric propulsion could reduce fares by 40 to 80 percent for routes ranging up to 1,000 miles.

Shifting traffic to underutilized regional airports could cut door-to-door travel times by 40 percent on busy routes such as Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, and by as much as 80 percent for less trafficked routes, Zunum says.

Hybrid electric planes also bring environmental benefits in the form of lower emissions and less noise.

Kumar said Zunum Aero has been working with the Center for Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems at the University of Illinois on a technology approach that blends battery storage with engine-generated power. An onboard software system would calculate when the engine needs to be on, and for how long, depending on the route.

As batteries become more capable, the airplane’s power train could go all-electric, Kumar said.

Zunum has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration to drive development of certification standards for electric aircraft. Kumar said he anticipates the standards to be in place by next year, opening the way for certification in 2020. That’s just about the time when the first planes based on Zunum Aero’s technology could be ready to roll off a production line.

Zunum Aero planes
This artist’s conception shows two potential designs for hybrid-electric planes. (Zunum Aero Illustration)

Zunum isn’t alone in pursuing the dream of electric airplanes. Boeing has been putting resources into hybrid-electric development projects for years.  Airbus has its long-running E-Fan program, which is evolving into a hybrid electric initiative that’s similar to Zunum’s. Uber is working on electric-powered flying cars. So is Zee Aero, which is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page.

Kumar is confident that Zunum Aero’s technological approach will win out, but he acknowledges that his company won’t be able to take on all the challenges of aircraft production by itself. “We know that’s going to take partners,” he told GeekWire.

Zunum’s development plan calls for aircraft with a range of 700 miles to be ready by the early 2020s, with that range extended to 1,000 miles by 2030. “You need to do the range very carefully to get to the disruptive economics, which is what we are focused on,” Kumar said.

If the economics are done right, Kumar said that could open the way for cheaper flights from Everett’s Paine Field, Seattle’s Boeing Field and Moses Lake’s Grant County International Airport. You might even see flights to unconventional locales, such as Seaside in Oregon.

“We’d love to go to Cannon Beach, but it’s a long drive,” Kumar said. “It could be a $30, $40 one-way flight down to Cannon Beach from Boeing Field.”

That’s a prime example of how new technology just might bring back the good old days of aviation.

“You can turn the clock back to where you did have air service in these airports with smaller aircraft,” Kumar said, “and bring back high-speed connectivity to communities that don’t have it.”

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