Dubai Air Show: The man set a mark in electric aerial sports

  Jeff Zaltman Copyright copyright
Air Race E


Jeff Zaltman is already running a successful runner-up competition

In the conference halls and on the sidelines of this week's Dubai Air Show, there is a lot of talk about the flight of the future.

But one of the most significant developments could easily be missed by the giant airlines and supersonic fighter jets on display.

The organizers behind an Airbus-supported electric racing series have released several details about their plans, including the unveiling of the first aircraft to compete in the series.

The tiny one-seater plane is dwarfed by the aircraft around it, but Jeff Zaltman likes to think it is pointing a way forward for aviation.

He is an American businessman behind Air Race E, a project that envisions 1[ads1]6 teams driving electrically powered aircraft around a circuit of up to 450 kmp (278 mph) and about 10 meters from the ground.

Mr. Zaltman is already running a successful international flight competition, Air Race One, where aircraft powered by traditional engines run on a 5.13 km oval orbit. It will be the template for Air Race E.

"I have no plans to stop Air Race One, but it's time for the aviation industry to start thinking about electric racing," he said. Just as Formula E, the global electric racing car series, has helped promote the potential and acceptance of battery-powered cars, he believes Air Race E can do a similar job in aviation.

Technology testbed

The aviation industry is in a mild panic about the carbon footprint. After ignoring the emissions problem for years, the industry is seeing tougher legislation come down the line – as well as more environmental protests and customer setbacks.

Critics accused the automobile industry of being too slow to invest in new technologies. By comparison, the aviation industry has barely started.

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Air Race E


The race circuit is about 5 km

Electrification in the aviation sector is about 20 years behind the automotive industry, he said. "There's a lot to take back. We offer a platform that can help accelerate that technology," Zaltman says. "Motorsport has always been a test bed for technology."

Formula 1 innovations found their way into automobiles, and the pre-World War II Schneider Trophy helped the Spitfire design.

"In Formula E, manufacturers are gearing up to develop and leverage the technology. We see no reason why we can't help aviation technology flourish," said Mr Zaltman.

Formula E started with cars of similar specification, and first lets teams customize their electrical technology. Air Race E begins with a different format.

Mr Zaltan said that using single-specific cars was a way to keep costs down and get Formula E established. Air Race E allows teams and manufacturers to use their own electrical technology, although there are certain limitations in aircraft design.

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Air Race E


The intention is to gradually have 16 layers

"It's a better way to test technology," says the former US Air Force engineer. "It doesn't test very much if all the technology is the same. We think it's a better way to help companies jump into the next generation of electric propulsion."

The fact that Airbus is willing to give its name to Air Race E is a bold statement from the European manufacturer. The series, like everyone else in motorsport, carries a certain degree of risk.

Racing teams

So what's with Airbus?

"We are here because we believe in electrical technology," says Sandra Bour Schaeffer, CEO of Airbus ExO Alpha, a department that explores alternatives to conventional aircraft fuel and design.

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Air Race E


Air Race One has been running for seven years

"Some of the answers to the future of electric flight will come from programs like this."

Airbus has agreed a sponsorship agreement, the details of which are confidential. In return, she says, Airbus will meet and develop ideas with engineers and academics that it may not usually come across in the world's great aerospace. There will be data sharing and cross-pollination of information.

Using battery power instead of conventional engines creates all kinds of problems around weight, handling, aerodynamics and design. Airbus sees Air Race E as part of its electric learning curve, and as the racing series and technology evolve, so will the entrances to commercial aircraft.

Airbus is already working on a small hybrid electric aircraft called the E-Fan, scheduled to make its first demonstration flight in 2021. However, the projects will remain separate.

The first team, Condor, was unveiled on Sunday, with another seven announced later this week to maximize the potential for publicity by being one of the world's largest aviation and aerospace events.

Condor is operated by Condor Aviation International, a UK company specializing in building and testing custom aircraft.

Mr. Zaltman describes the other teams as "an eclectic mix" of companies, entrepreneurs, engineers and pilots who see the "potential and fun" of air travel. Universities, including the UK's Nottingham, Hull and Teesside, are involved in helping teams develop the technology.

Place in history

The list of host cities is expected to be released early next year, with the first race to be held later in 2020. Mr Zaltman will not reveal the location list, only that they will be cities – races will be at airports – busy by promoting their "environmental pedigree".

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Air Race E


Air Race One already attracts thousands of spectators at every race

After leaving the Navy, Zaltman went to Boston University, then did an MBA in London, and – among other jobs – worked in Ford's business development business.

"But I was always a bit entrepreneurial and wanted to set up something for myself," he said. The "something" became the Air Race One series, which airs in 100 countries and attracts tens of thousands of spectators.

"Air Race One has been going for seven years and I have no plans to stop it. But I can see now the potential of electric aircraft to revolutionize flights," he said.

"Hopefully, when we all fly in electric commercial aircraft, engineers will trace some of the roots back to Air Race E."

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