The Cessna 208 Caravan – More Than a Testbed of Autonomy and Clean Propulsion Technologies

 In Avascent Altimeter

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many suppliers to suspend notable R&D initiatives and re-evaluate their investment plans, there is still significant momentum behind two key disruptive thrusts – autonomy and clean propulsion (or reduced-emission propulsion, which includes electric, hybrid-electric, and hydrogen power).

While both technologies provide notable safety and environmental benefits, their ability to reduce aircraft operating costs by up to 50-70% will fundamentally transform business models across a variety of aviation end-markets.

The Future Applications of Autonomy and Clean Propulsion Technologies

The most impactful end-market application of course lies with commercial airlines, and Airbus’s successful autonomous A350 test flight in June[1] and its ZEROe hydrogen aircraft announcement in September[2] have helped the industry begin to visualize these technologies’ future viability.

Yet despite this excitement, it will be years before these technologies (and corresponding regulations) are mature enough for large commercial aircraft.

Another highly anticipated application for autonomy and clean propulsion technology is with emerging Urban Air Mobility (UAM) eVTOL[3] platforms.

Various concepts have attracted sizeable investments and many will likely enter service this decade, yet implementation of a full-scale UAM ecosystem that delivers a suitable return on investment will likely take decades.

Given these hurdles, the most promising application for autonomy and clean propulsion investments over the next 5-10 years appears oriented toward more traditional short-haul and regional air travel.

The use of smaller aircraft and the abundance of non-passenger, lower-risk transport missions is well suited to the current maturities of autonomous flight control and clean propulsion technologies.

Additionally, a sizeable fleet of in-service turboprops provides opportunity for retrofit technology implementations that can materialize faster than clean-sheet aircraft designs.

Furthermore, few, if any changes to existing airport and ground infrastructure are required.

The Cessna 208 Caravan – A Promising Autonomous and Clean Propulsion Platform

Some of the most promising and visible initiatives as of late have involved the Cessna 208 Caravan (C208). It is not only a popular regional passenger aircraft, but also the most prevalent turboprop for cargo missions, with 360 aircraft in service (~30% of the global cargo turboprop fleet[4]).

Reliable Robotics performed an automated landing of a FedEx-owned C208 in June, as a first step in eventually introducing autonomous Cessna 208 Caravan (C208) on remote routes in FedEx’s network.

Meanwhile, magniX and AeroTEC debuted the all-electric ‘eCaravan’ in a 30-minute test flight in May. Retrofitted with magniX’s magni500 propulsion system, the test flight consumed only $6 of electricity compared to the estimated $300 of fuel required for a conventional C208 flight of the same duration.[5]

These and other similar test flights provide a glimpse into the compelling nature of an autonomous, clean propulsion Cessna 208 Caravan (C208).

Based on an examination of typical C208 operating costs, nearly 70% of the total cost per flight hour (CPFH) consists of crew-related, fuel, or engine maintenance expenses – all of which could be significantly reduced or eliminated as autonomy and clean propulsion technology matures (see Fig. 1).

For FedEx, its contracted carriers currently operate 224 FedEx Feeder C208s to distribute cargo from mainline hubs to regional airports; a 50-70% reduction in CPFH would lead to $100-$140M in annual operating cost savings for FedEx-owned fleets alone.

It is certainly possible that the Cessna 208 Caravan (C208) and similar turboprops are destined to remain developmental autonomy and clean propulsion technology testbeds on the path to large-scale airliner implementations.

Yet considering the economic and environmental benefits that can be achieved across such a large turboprop fleet, the standalone business case potential for disruptive technology insertion in this domain cannot be ignored.

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