China’s electric plane flies low to beat world rivals to market

The RX1E can fly 120km/h after just 90 minutes of charging, but will the first electric plane approved for commercial use really take off?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 December, 2015, 11:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 December, 2015, 12:49pm

China has given the green light to the production of the world’s first electric aircraft for commercial use, state media has reported.

The two-seat RX1E aircraft, powered by a lithium battery and an electric motor, had been approved for production by civil aviation authorities and the government expected “strong market potential” due to its environmental friendliness, Xinhua reported.

The aircraft can fly 120km/h after just 90 minutes of charging, and the manufacturer has received 28 orders so far. It can put out as many as 100 units a year.

But other specs might dampen some of the excitement. The battery drains out as soon as 45 minutes into flying, and the plane can’t climb above 3,000 metres above sea level due to power and safety constraints.

According to previous media reports, the project was started from scratch but with strong government backing in 2012 and received commercial flight certification earlier this year. Such rapid development has left most other rivals in the dust.

But it’s not cheap. Together with the battery pack, the plane costs about 1 million yuan (HK$1.2 million). That could buy a few Teslas.

Electric planes have been around for a while. The first buzzed off in Western Germany in the 1970s, and by now more than a dozen test models have been announced by various companies, from high-tech startups to aviation giants such as Airbus.

But Beijing seemed more eager than other countries to take the green planes to the sky. Part of the reason is the number of pilots. The mainland has more than 1,700 planes registered for general aviation but fewer than 700 pilots are available. The government expects more than 100,000 new pilots will be needed in the coming decade.

The RX1E can help increase the size of the pool. Training a pilot on an electric plane is expected to cost only 120,000 yuan, several times less than the cost of conventional training, according to the manufacturer, Liaoning Ruixiang General Aviation based in Shenyang city, Liaoning province.

The company claims the project is supported by government agencies and state owned companies including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Civil Aviation Administration and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, which built one of China’s new stealth fighter jets.

The plane also met stringent quality standards, Ruixiang General Aviation said.

It has passed all the test categories required by the American Society for Testing and Materials International under the supervision of Chinese aviation authorities, Ruixiang General Aviation said on its website.

In addition to pilot training, the RX1E could be used in a wide range of sectors including agriculture, forestry and livestock management, the company said.