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Zunum electric plane
An artist’s conception shows Zunum Aero’s hybrid-to-electric airplane in flight. (Zunum Photo)

Zunum Aero is fleshing out its plan to build an electric-powered airplane that could be delivered to airlines as early as 2022.

To gear up for testing, the Kirkland, Wash.-based startup has added a second development center in the Chicago area, said Zunum founder and CEO Ashish Kumar.

The expansion went eastward because Zunum was looking for expertise in power electronics, electric motors and propulsors. “The talent space for that is here in the Midwest,” Kumar told GeekWire.

He said Zunum Aero’s team now adds up to about 15 employees, roughly divided into thirds between the Seattle area, the Chicago area and an assortment of other locations. The four-year-old company also relies on a complement of outside advisers and contractors.

Zunum’s schedule calls for flight tests to begin in 2019, leading to certification and the delivery of the first four to six planes in 2022, he said. Eventually, Kumar would like to see 100 to 200 of the planes manufactured every year.

The details of the production plan, including exactly where and how all those planes would be built, will depend on the partnerships that are forged in the months ahead. “That’s something that we’ll clarify over the next year to 18 months,” Kumar said.

The part of the plan that Zunum clarified today has to do with the overall design of the airplane and the company’s technological roadmap.

Zunum, whose name comes from the Mayan word for “hummingbird,” is targeting the market for regional flights of up to 1,000 miles. The current hub-and-spoke paradigm for air travel has left a lot of that market underserved, with more than 5,000 underutilized regional airports.

Kumar aims to change the paradigm by introducing a new class of hybrid-to-electric airplane that are cleaner and more efficient than gas-powered planes, reinvigorating regional airports in the process.

The plane could seat 12 passengers in an economy-class configuration, nine passengers in premium seating, or six in an executive travel setting.

Zunum says direct costs per seat mile could go as low as 8 cents, or $250 per hour for the aircraft. That’s roughly equivalent to the operating costs for discount airlines. Maximum cruise speed would be 340 mph, compared to the top speed of 500 mph for big commercial jets.

Projected range for Zunum’s first-generation planes would be 700 miles, rising to 1,000 miles by 2030. The plane’s anticipated sweet spot focuses on flights from, say, Seattle’s Boeing Field or Everett’s Paine Field to locales such as Missoula, Mont.; Whistler, B.C.; Portland, Ore.; or Sacramento, Calif.

Because Zunum envisions using regional airports, travelers could skip the lineups at larger airports and potentially cut their door-to-door travel time in half. For example, getting from Seattle to the ski slopes at Whistler could take less than two hours and cost just $79, Zunum says.

Quicker, cheaper air travel over regional ranges could have a big impact on the transportation paradigm. “That’s going to shift traffic from automobiles to air,” Kumar said. Such a shift could, in turn, double or triple the demand for regional aircraft in the years ahead, he said.

There’s a potential environmental payoff as well: Zunum says going electric could cut noise and pollution by as much as 80 percent.

All this may sound like an overly rosy vision of a greener future for aviation — but Zunum’s investors, including the venture capital arms of Boeing and JetBlue, say they’re on board with it. The company has also benefited from an $800,000 grant provided by the Washington State Clean Energy Fund.

“We believe that the regional transportation industry is ripe for disruption, and we’re excited to support Zunum and its efforts to help introduce a new era of aviation,” Binny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures, said today in a statement.

“Zunum is reinvigorating the regional market with a solution that’s both innovative and realistic,” said Logan Jones, managing director at Boeing HorizonX. “We see them as a leader in electric aviation, building on proven technologies, with a mature technical and commercial team.”

Kumar said that Boeing “is helping us immensely” with business expertise as well as technological know-how. “A lot of the technologies that were improved are really Boeing 787-derived technologies,” he said.

Zunum plane cutaway
Zunum Aero’s 2022 model would draw its power from wing-integrated batteries. (Zunum Graphic)

The heart of the airplane will be its hybrid-electric series powertrain, which will draw upon batteries integrated into the wings. Those batteries could make use of advanced lithium-ion chemistry, or emerging technologies such as solid-state batteries. “We’re battery-technology agnostic,” Kumar said.

At first, the batteries would have to be recharged in the air by a gas-powered motor — which accounts for the “hybrid” in the powertrain. But as battery technology improves, Zunum expects to shift to all-electric propulsion.

“We are 100 percent riding on the coattails of the auto industry,” Kumar said.

Zunum is anticipating progress over the next five years in ride-hailing and ride-sharing car services as well as autonomous vehicles, which would streamline the trips to and from regional airports. And the company is also counting on advances in air traffic control, such as the ADS-B system that the Federal Aviation Administration will be phasing in over the next few years.

These trends, and others, mesh with Zunum’s expectation that 2022 is the right time to start the revolution.

“If you look ahead, the stars are aligning,” Kumar said, “And the most important star is battery technology.”

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