Boeing, JetBlue invest in electric aircraft maker Zunum Aero

Boeing and JetBlue have invested in Washington-based startup Zunum Aero, which is developing short-haul electric aircraft that can carry 10 to 50 passengers and travel up to 1,000 miles.

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(Image: Zunum Aero)

Boeing's new HorizonX venture capital unit, joined by JetBlue Airways, has invested an undisclosed amount in Zunum Aero, a Kirkland, Washington-based startup that is developing short-haul electric aircraft to sell to major carriers for service on frequently travelled regional routes such as Boston to Washington DC, and San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The three-year-old startup is currently building an aircraft that can accommodate 10 to 50 passengers as well as travel up to 700 miles initially, and as much as 1,000 miles by 2030.

Given many carriers now favour larger aircraft that offer lower unit costs over small regional jets, Zunum said its aircraft would fill a "vast regional transport gap", with the potential to reduce travel times in busy corridors by as much as 40 percent, and by 80 percent in areas with less traffic.

In addition, the startup claims that reduced operating costs -- thanks to no fuelling -- would enable 40 percent to 80 percent below current retail prices.

The aircraft will initially feature hybrid propulsion, which Zunum said will deliver 80 percent lower emissions than existing aircraft.

However, advancements in battery technology will mean that the aircraft's combustion engine can be replaced with an extra battery pack, thereby bringing emissions down to zero, the startup said.

Zunum expects to complete its first plane by 2020, with the prototype to be finished in the next couple of years. The startup said it has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration on development of certification rules for electric aircraft, with a complete set of standards expected by 2018.

As the automotive industry heads towards electric cars, electric aviation remains in its infancy -- not helped by existing battery weights and strict regulatory requirements. But moves are being made by a number of companies including Siemens, which recorded a successful trial of a 50kg electric motor in a light aircraft in Germany in July last year, and Airbus, which flew an electric motor-powered single-seat aircraft across the English Channel in 2015.

Australian company MagniX also built a prototype motor for electric-powered planes recently, in conjunction with the University of Queensland and aerospace company Ferra. The motor will be trialled inside a light aircraft in 2020, MagniX said.

In addition to Zunum, HorizonX has invested an undisclosed amount in Upskill, another Washington-based startup that provides software for industrial augmented reality wearables. Its technology aims to boost productivity for manufacturers, field services, and logistics companies.

Boeing has used Upskill's software, Skylight, to reduce production time by 25 percent for technicians installing 130 miles of wiring in the company's 747-8 jumbo jets.

The aerospace giant said its St Louis, Missouri-based VC unit, which is being led by former VP of strategy for Boeing Defense, Space, and Security Steve Nordlund, will have three focus areas: Investing in new ventures, identifying business opportunities for the company's aerospace capabilities, and assessing innovations such as autonomy, artificial intelligence, and additive manufacturing.

"Our ability to identify, shape, and harness game-changing innovations wherever they are developed is key to sustaining and growing our leadership in aerospace," said Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing chairman, president, and CEO.

"Boeing HorizonX is tasked with ensuring we are fully engaged with opportunities from early stage companies, market trends, and emerging technologies while also fostering more rapid and effective internal innovation."

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