VivaTech 2021: Are solar powered planes and autonomous drones the future of flight?

Traditional aircraft are big CO2 emitters, but decarbonising air travel is no easy task.
Traditional aircraft are big CO2 emitters, but decarbonising air travel is no easy task. Copyright Spencer Imbrock - Unsplash
By Tom BatemanPascale Davies
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Startups SolarStratos and EHang say zero-emissions electric flight can become a reality. But are they right?


The future of flight is electric. At least that's what two startups on show at VivaTech 2021 believe.

Self-described "solar explorer" Raphaël Domjan is the public face of SolarStratos, a Swiss project that has set itself the lofty goal of reaching the edge of space in a solar-powered aircraft.

"The goal is to go as high as possible. We think that we can go between 80 to 20km high," Domjan said.

"It's not possible to go into the stratosphere with a normal aircraft," he explained. "When you climb you have less oxygen so the power of the engine is decreasing. So the best way to go really high is with solar aircraft and with electric aircraft".

Domjan made his name by completing the first solar-powered circumnavigation of the earth in a boat christened the Tûranor PlanetSolar.

He has since pulled off two more world firsts: becoming the first person to jump from an electric aircraft and then, shortly afterward, the first person to carry out a carbon-neutral freefall skydive.

SolarStratos is more interested in promoting sustainable energy – and gathering subscriptions to its supporters' club – than in trying to become the next Boeing or Airbus. Domjan himself believes solar will not provide the solution to decarbonising air travel.

"We don't think the future of aeronautics will be in solar. We think it will be in electric aircraft, using as an example hydrogen. We think this is the future of aircraft that will fly without CO2 and without noise," he told Euronews Next.

But that dream looks far off. Last week it was revealed that executives at Toulouse-based aircraft manufacturer Airbus briefed European Union officials that hydrogen-powered passenger flights were unlikely to take off before 2050.

Can electric flight change mass transport?

Chinese startup EHang, on the other hand, makes bold claims about the future of flight.

EHang Europe CMO Andreas Perotti was howing off EHang's autonomous two-person passenger drone at VivaTech 2021. He told Euronews Next that passenger UAVs were the "biggest disruption since the invention of cars".

EHang says its AAV – Autonomous Aerial Vehicle – can carry two passengers 35km. It sold 70 of them last year. None are currently in commercial passenger service, although they have received approval for use transporting freight in China and trial flights are being carried out in several countries around the world.

"We think the state of the industry is comparable with the car industry in the 1920s. You still have some scepticism but you also have a lot of appreciation for this topic," Perotti said.

For the sceptics, even putting aside questions around the feasibility of the company's claim that it will enable anyone to glide safely and speedily above traffic for the price of a regular taxi, EHang's investor documentation filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission this week will give pause for thought.

In it, the company acknowledges the various regulatory and safety hurdles it faces – no country has yet approved a drone for passenger service.

The filing also reveals details about EHang's finances. While company revenue grew almost 50 per cent in 2020, EHang filed a net loss of just over $14 million (€11.5 million), almost double the amount it lost in 2019.

Nevertheless, EHang believes its position as the first company to offer a passenger-grade UAV will serve it well in its bid to grab a share of the urban air travel market, which analyst Morgan Stanley has said could be worth $1.5 trillion (€1.2 trillion) by 2040.

"There was a recent study from EASA (the European Aviation Safety Agency) which said that more than two-thirds of the population are really eager to have such a solution, because what is it bringing to us at the end of the day? It's saving us time," EHang's Perotti told Euronews Next.


"You don't commute any longer in traffic jams for two or three hours, a big problem in big cities like here in Paris, you just fly over the traffic jam," he said.

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