Boeing and JetBlue Airways are investing in a startup developing an electric-powered aircraft with the potential to transform short-haul flights.
Zunum Aero is designing and building 10- to 50-seat planes for trips of 700 miles initially and as much as 1,000 miles by 2030.
The aircraft would fill a "vast regional transport gap" and reduce travel times in busy corridors by as much as 40 percent, and by 80 percent in areas with less traffic, Zunum said in a statement Wednesday.
Founded in 2013, Zunum expects to complete its first plane by 2020.
The Kirkland, Washington-based company said it’s been working with the Federal Aviation Administration on development of certification rules for electric aircraft, with a complete set of standards expected by 2018.
The aircraft will have 80 percent lower emissions initially and will cut noise by 75 percent, Zunum said.
JetBlue isn’t disclosing how much it’s investing. It will hold a minority stake in Zunum and a seat as a board observer.
Zunum’s aircraft would compete in the market for smaller planes, where Boeing doesn’t have any product offerings.
While Boeing is taking a minority stake in Zunum, it wouldn’t build the electric planes.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity," said Andrew Alleyne director of the National Science Foundation’s Center for Power Optimization of Electro-Thermal Systems. “But it comes with some serious technology challenges."
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Developing an electric or hybrid-electric plane will require controlling battery weight, managing heat buildup and integrating power subsystems efficiently, said Alleyne, a professor at the University of Illinois.
Composite materials used for the fuselage can magnify heat problems, he said.
“If we can solve those here in the U.S., it puts us at a serious competitive advantage,” Alleyne said.
Zunum and Boeing both are members of the center, which focuses on increasing the power density of the electrified transportation system in the U.S.
“We believe that, just like Tesla is disrupting the auto industry, electric propulsion will disrupt the regional airline industry,” Bonny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures, said in an interview, referring to carmaker Tesla Inc.
“By investing now, we will literally have a seat at the table to see how this technology evolves."