MagniX & Harbour Air Want to Convert Seaplanes Into “ePlanes”

Xconomy Seattle — 

MagniX, a startup developing electric propulsion systems for small planes, has announced a partnership with a British Columbia airline to convert some of the seaplanes it operates into “ePlanes.”

MagniX’s partnership with Richmond, BC-based Harbour Air is the first the propulsion technology startup has announced publicly, says CEO Roei Ganzarski. The deal’s financial terms were not disclosed, but it’s another signal of the progress being made in electric plane motors, a small-but-growing segment of the aviation industry. Other companies working in this area include the German manufacturing giant Siemens and the Netherlands-based aerospace leader Airbus. (More on their efforts below.)

MagniX was founded in Australia a decade ago, and last year it relocated its headquarters to Redmond, WA. Ganzarski says that about 18 months ago, the startup decided to focus on developing electric propulsion systems for small planes. (Up to that point, ManiX had been a “general R&D company” whose efforts spanned all realms of electric motors, he says.) These systems encompass motors and power electronics, like inverters that change direct current to alternating current, he says.

Ganzarski, a former Boeing (NYSE: BA) executive, joined MagniX last May, and the company moved into its new headquarters in Redmond not long after, he says. About 15 of the startup’s 65 employees are based in the Seattle area, and the rest continue to work from MagniX’s Australia offices, he says.

Harbour Air bills itself as North America’s largest airline flying solely seaplanes, and says its planes make more than 30,000 commercial flights per year. The airline’s planes, which transport both passengers and cargo over short distances, fly a dozen routes, serving cities like Seattle; Vancouver; Victoria, BC; and Whistler, BC.

In the coming years, the airline and MagniX will work together to install 750-horsepower electric motors, the more powerful of the two propulsion systems MagniX sells, in “the majority” of the 40-plus planes in Harbour Air’s fleet, Ganzarski says.

The first model of plane the companies plan to convert is the six-passenger de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, according to a news release.

Under U.S. and Canadian law, Harbour Air has the ability to make certain modifications to the planes it operates, Ganzarski says. But regulations require Harbour Air to submit what’s known in Federal Aviation Administration lingo as a supplemental type certificate, in order to swap out the propulsion system currently in one of its planes for an electric one, Ganzarski says. The airline must conduct a test flight of the modified plane, and demonstrate to regulators that it is as safe or safer than the version of the plane that was certified previously, he says.

MagniX and Harbour Air have had initial conversations about the conversion plan with leaders at the FAA and Transport Canada, which regulates air travel in that country, Ganzarski says.

“Our intent is to have the first [test] flight before the end of this year,” Ganzarski says. The companies haven’t determined exactly where they’ll test the planes, but it will likely be somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, he says.

Harbour Air and MagniX are seeking certification for the electric-powered DHC-2 Beaver plane by 2021, and to begin operating a portion of the airline’s fleet as electric seaplanes the following year, Ganzarski says.

Separately, MagniX is working with plane manufacturers to design new, all-electric aircraft that would use the startup’s propulsion systems, he says. That work follows a different regulatory path than the one MagniX is navigating to replace propulsion systems in existing planes.

Ganzarski emphasizes that electric motors have been around for a long time, and it’s not as if his startup claims to have invented the technology. However, he says MagniX has made advancements in three areas that have helped position the company to potentially make its mark on the emerging sector of electric plane motors. These areas are materials (what magnets, coils, and other parts of the motor are made of); design (the placement of magnets, for example); and MagniX’s internal, integrated liquid cooling system.

Using air cooling to regulate the temperature of a 750-horsepower plane motor presents major engineering hurdles, Ganzarski says. Once MagniX realized liquid cooling was a more sensible option, the challenge was developing an effective system that wouldn’t weigh down a plane, he says.

“What we’ve been able to develop is a proprietary system that provides integrated liquid cooling into the motor and the inverter without adding any bad weight,” Ganzarski says.

MagniX works with three different battery companies, and for now the startup is using “traditional lithium-ion batteries” to power its motors and other equipment.

Siemens is one business that has a head start on MagniX in working to bring electric motor technology to commercial air travel. The company’s motors have already been used in tests of a plane Denver-based Bye Aerospace is developing. Separately, Siemens is also working with Airbus and other partners on a hybrid-electric passenger plane known as E-Fan X.

Ganzarski says he’s “happy to have someone of the caliber of Siemens be in this competitive market.” MagniX and Siemens are the only two organizations he knows of that have successfully built a 350-horsepower motor (MagniX’s lower-power offering) that’s liquid-cooled and geared towards aerospace.

“It really proves the point that electric aviation, for the size of aircraft and commercial use that we’re talking about, is in fact a real thing,” Ganzarski says. “Otherwise, the likes of Siemens wouldn’t be in this.”