The world’s fastest battery-powered aircraft zips through the air at over 200 miles per hour, making huge strides toward eventually replacing combustion and jet engines with electric ones in the skies. Siemens prototype battery-powered Extra 330LE plane carries a new, much-ballyhooed electric engine that has excited industry analysts ever since its laboratory debut, and on Tuesday the company announced that it has a world speed record to match.
In March, the 330LE set a new top-speed record for electric aircraft when it hit over 200 miles per hour over a slightly less than two-mile stretch. In the same demonstration, it also became the first electric aircraft ever to tow a glider to cruising speed and, in December, it also broke the electric climbing record. Demonstrated over Munich, Germany, the little battery-powered plane reached over 3,000 meters altitude in under four and a half minutes.
The new Siemens engine that makes this possible is a true marvel, providing a whopping 260 kW of power output while weighing just 110 lbs, overall. That’s a huge improvement in terms of power to weight, but if we want a range of electric aircraft beyond stripped down trick planes, it’s just the first of two major innovations needed.
The other is a similarly enormous jump in battery energy density, compared to battery weight. Electric tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has been explicit about this, saying that his own plans for a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) electric plane can’t be realized until batteries reach at least 400 watt-hours per kilogram — while Tesla’s best car batteries currently max out at around 250 Wh/kg. Given rates of advancement, some analysts believe we could reach that threshold in as little as 5 to 10 years.
Still, the 330LE is an important step forward — or at least, its engine is. The plane itself was just designed to act as a “flying test bed” for the engine, the power of which will allow it to propel aircraft with takeoff weights up to two tons. That’s just the beginning, according to head of Siemens’ eAircraft division Frank Anton, who said that, “By 2030, we expect to see the first planes carrying up to 100 passengers and having a range of about 1,000 kilometers.”
From Samsung to Tesla, the biggest players in the tech world are already working on improved battery technology. It will take multiple concurrent breakthroughs like this one, focused on the mechanical side of the issue, to let those new battery technologies revolutionize air travel right along with the land and the sea.