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Electrical Propulsion: Ready for Takeoff

Imagine the skies of tomorrow: planes gliding virtually noiselessly through the sky while consuming less fuel and throwing off fewer noxious NOx emissions.


The secret? Electrical propulsion. Although commercial aircraft fully equipped with electric engines is still in the future (after 2030), small electric propulsion platforms like urbans air taxis are already at prototype stage and could potentially revolutionize air transport. These platforms are able to take off vertically and to fly at low altitudes in urban areas.

While Thales is known best for its civil and defence electronics, the company is already one of the world’s top three suppliers of electrical aircraft power-generation and conversion systems.

Thales is also contributing to defining the energy roadmap for electrical propulsion systems to help carry more people in the sky and in a more eco-friendly way. Joël Devautour, Technical Director, Thales Electrical Systems.

And Thales’s expertise is helping to accelerate the transition through stepped up R&D to develop power-conversion solutions able to power the various electrical networks of an aircraft — including high-voltage networks — and specific electrical loads. Thales’s power-conversion solutions are today certified and in service on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and A350 XWB.

On the 787 Dreamliner, the proportion of electrically powered systems has more than tripled because electrical systems have replaced a number of hydraulic or pneumatic flight systems, such as the take-off functions. Thales is also supplying the power-conversion system for this aircraft.

In another areas, many aircraft systems — processors, navigation instruments, actuator controls, lighting, ventilation and inflight entertainment systems, for example — are already electrically powered. New applications like engine starting are now going electric on modern aircraft.

Thales has also developed an integrated modular power electronics (IMPE) architecture able to power all types of load on an aircraft. This new architecture is built around standard, reconfigurable, redundant power electronics modules and incorporates an intelligent power management feature that dynamically combines demand and pools resources as needed.

Here are some concrete examples of how Thales is taking the lead in electrifying aircraft:
•    For the Airbus A380 and A400M, Thales has developed a variable-frequency power-generation technology in partnership with Safran.
•    For the A350 XWB, Thales is supplying some key components of the electrical power conversion system, which can deliver different voltages adapted to the standards of the energy-consuming equipment on the aircraft.
•    Thales has equipped the Falcon 5X with the latest technological advances.

More electrified aircraft will also make it possible to reach the targets of the Clean Sky project, which is seeking to achieve a 50% cut in CO2 emissions and an 80% cut in NOx emissions by 2020. Thanks to the efforts of engine manufacturers and to increasing system electrification, new aircraft will be more energy efficient, have a smaller environmental footprint, and cost less to maintain.

“Tomorrow’s electrical aircraft, like today’s electric cars, will be a very significant contribution to the reduction of noise and pollution, making the skies a more eco-friendly place for all. Joël Devautour
This article is part of a series of articles published for the Farnborough International Airshow in England, 16-22nd July 2018.