French start-up Aura Aero last week announced plans to bring a hybrid-electric 19-seat airliner into commercial service by 2026. Its ambitious goals for the Electrical Regional Aircraft (ERA) build on its experience developing the all-electric Integral E light aircraft, which is set to make its first test flight in 2022.
The company, which has just opened a 38,000-sq-ft manufacturing facility in a former French air force hangar near Toulouse, says that it already holds orders for 50 examples of the two-seat Integral E, mainly from flight-training organizations and aerobatic clubs. Apart from its electric propulsion system, the aircraft is fundamentally the same in performance as its Integral R model, for which first deliveries should be made before the end of 2021. The firm is also working on the Integral S, which is an adaptation of the R featuring a tricycle-configured landing gear and is expected to begin flight testing this summer.
According to Aura Aero co-founder and president Jeremy Caussade, there is space in the airline sector for 19-seat aircraft to serve point-to-point regional city pairs, avoiding crowded hub airports. In his view, this sector of the market is too small to be of interest to established manufacturers such as Airbus and ATR (both of which are based in Toulouse).
The company has not yet finalized the projected performance for the ERA model but believes that the market likely needs an aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of around 8.5 metric tons (18,700 pounds) and a range of up to around 900 miles. This is why it aims to use a hybrid-electric propulsion system for the new airliner since current battery technology would limit range to no more than 250 miles and this would be further limited by the need to have 45 minutes of power reserves for safety margins.
Aura Aero is now trying to connect with prospective launch airline customers so that it can finalize the ERA’s design and performance specifications. The company aims to have a prototype ready to start test flights in 2024. Early concept drawings show an aircraft with six sets of propellers on the wing.
“We need to lower the price per passenger per kilogram [of aircraft weight], and if we do that we can lower the price of [airline] tickets, and then producing smaller volumes of aircraft starts to become commercially viable for the airlines,” Caussade told FutureFlight.
For the Integral E, Aura Aero says it is close to selecting from one of two companies bidding to provide the electric motor. On March 3, it signed a partnership agreement with Verkor, which will provide lithium-ion batteries from a giga factory it is building in the south of France to mass-produce batteries.
According to Caussade, who like several of his colleagues is a former Airbus employee, with the Integral family it plans to offer a mix of electric, hybrid, and piston-powered aircraft to meet the differing performance needs and priorities of flight-training clients in both the civilian and military sectors. The R and S models will be able to fly at up to 207 mph, and their range of just over 800 miles means that they could be attractive for personal leisure travel.
Based on its current backlog of early sales, the company plans to assemble 30 aircraft in 2022 and 50 more in 2023. It holds firm orders from seven undisclosed customers.
Aura Aero has received €200,000 ($235,000) from France’s Occitanie regional government to support the development of the Integral R aircraft. Its plans also are underwritten by a €1 million government innovation contract for the Integral E program and a further €100,000 to support it in marketing and business development efforts.
The Occitanie regional authorities also have committed up to a further €5 million in support for the ERA program as part of their “green aircraft in light aviation” initiative to help local aerospace companies to recover from the Covid pandemic. The company, which has 50 employees and aims to have 80 by year-end, also has the support of the Aerospace Valley’s MAELE program to promote “environmentally responsible light air mobility.” It plans to launch a further funding round this summer.