A Seattle-based start-up, backed by the venture capital arms of Boeing Co and JetBlue Airways Corp announced plans to bring a small hybrid-electric commuter aircraft to market by 2022. The company will also have the engineering prowess of Rolls-Royce on hand for this venture.

Boeing-backed, electric-hybrid airliner set to hit market in 2022

Zunum Aero is focused on developing a hybrid electric plane for regional air travel, which the company has said would seat up to 12 passengers, will be powered by two electric motors, dramatically reduces the travel time and cost of trips under 1000 miles (1600km).

Zunum's plans and timetable underscore 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.

Though Zunum does not expect to be the first to certify an electric-powered aircraft with regulators, it is rather aiming to fill a market gap for regional travel by airlines, where private jets and commercial jetliners are too costly for many to use. 

According to Zubum's co-founder and chief aeronautic engineer Matt Knapp, their planes would fly from thousands of small airports around big cities to cut regional travel times and costs.

"Airlines are very keen to know how to fly a shorter distance and make money on it," Knapp said.

"A flight from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles, for instance, would leave from Palo Alto, San Carlos, Hayward or Reid Hillview airports and arrive in Santa Monica, Burbank, Hawthorne or San Gabriel Valley airports. The cost would be about $120 one way.

"The travel time of over four hours would be cut in half by avoiding the crowds and security lines at big hubs that are required for larger planes.

"About 96% of US air traffic travels through 1% of its airports, leaving thousands of small airports virtually untapped."

Knapp said that EV batteries, such as those made by Tesla Inc. and Panasonic Corp, would power Zunum's motors, although Zunum has no commitment with either company.

"A supplemental jet-fuel engine and electrical generator would be used to give the plane a range of 700 miles and ensure it stays aloft after the batteries are exhausted," Knapp adds.

"Zunum plans to make a larger plane searing up to 50 passengers at the end of the next decade, and the range of both would increase to about 1000 miles as battery technology improves.

"The planes eventually would fly solely on battery power, and are being designed to fly with one pilot and to eventually be remotely piloted.

"Recent advances in battery technology, lightweight electric motors and carbon composite airframes would cut the cost of flying Zunum's aircraft to about eight cents per seat-mile - about one-fifth that of a small jet or turboprop plane."

The planes would have a maximum cruising speed of 340m/h, while emitting 80% fewer emissions and running 75% quieter.

The implementation of electric propulsion engines in favour or larger, much more expensive turbine engines could be a truly disruptive force for commercial airlines. Not only could these types of planes funnel more business to smaller airports with lower operating costs, but they will also create a new market where giants like Boeing and Airbus don't currently have product offerings.

A shift in regional, electric jets could also take a bite out of aerospace engine manufacturers like GE and Pratt & Whitney. 

The most significant challenges currently facing this technology are addressing battery weight, managing heat build-up, and designing power subsystems that won't drain the batteries too quickly.

The company hopes to have a fleet of electric planes ranging from 10 to 50 seats by the end of the 2020s. 

Current battery technology can only power the plane for about 100 miles so a gas-powered engine would be used to generate electricity to power the motors for additional range. 

In a recent separate but related development, Boeing also said that it plans to acquire a company that specialises in electric and autonomous flight to help its own efforts to develop such aircraft.

The next step for Zunum is to work with the Federal Aviation Administration to develop standards for electric aircraft. The company hopes to begin test flights of these hybrid aircraft in 2019.