Boeing-backed Zunum plans hybrid-electric flight in five years

A Boeing-backed startup is working on plans to put a hybrid-electric aircraft into commercial service within five years, even as automakers, tech companies and governments take steps to make AV technology mainstream.

In April Boeing had launched a venture capital arm which had invested in two tech startups, one of them being Zunum (See:  Boeing's venture capital arm invests in two tech startups). 

Zunum Aero's 12-seat plane will be powered by battery packs with a small fuel reserve for a back-up engine. According to the company, the first model will fly about 700 miles, far enough to ferry travelers from Boston to Washington or Silicon Valley to Los Angeles.

By integrating the latest advances in battery technology pioneered by the auto industry, Zunum aims to eliminate the emissions and roar of combustion-based jet engines, which according to commentators is a tall order for a company with just 15 employees, especially in a business where breakthrough designs could cost billions of dollars.

Zunum, backed by JetBlue Airways Corp besides Boeing, is taking on the likes of Europe's Airbus SE and a partnership that includes EasyJet Plc. Similar concepts are being pushed by the US military and NASA.

''People are surfing that Tesla wave, if you will, with some of the same range anxiety,'' said aviation consultant Robert Mann, Bloomberg reported. ''Everyone is looking at this.''

For Zunum chief executive officer Ashish Kumar, the all-electric buses are more representative of the future battery powered transport than Elon Musk's electric cars at Tesla Inc.

Short-haul flights produce over 40 per cent of aviation emissions. Zunum said in a sttement, "With our aircraft, we believe these will be largely eliminated within twenty years. Our aircraft are ''hybrid-to-electrics'' that sip fuel only when they have to, will use even less over time as batteries upgrade, and will one day go completely without.

Commentators say Zunum's planes will need to be in operation throughout the day to make money for operators, while Tesla's owners typically have short commutes.

They add, Zunum's plans reveal a rush to develop small electric aircraft based on rapidly evolving battery technology and artificial intelligence systems that avoid obstacles on a road or in the sky.

In a separate but related development, Boeing said on Thursday it looked to acquire a company foucused on electric and autonomous flight to help its own efforts to develop such aircraft.