Jeff Zaltman, the founder and chief executive of Air Race E, talks to Phoebe Street about how the electric aeroplane series is looking to blaze a trail in air racing.
In the sport of air racing the issue of the environment is always a prominent issue.
This is all the more the case for Air Race E, the world’s first all-electric airplane race series.
The international series, which was originally due to launch in 2020, is set to get under way in 2022, with delays having been caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Dubai-based series has a prototype plane and a dedicated test centre where the aircraft are engineered, while qualified test pilots and certified race pilots are preparing for next year.
The first flight of an all-electric racing aircraft will take place this July.
The organisers bring experience from the Air Race 1 series, which launched in 2014, and will be looking to promote electric racing in the same way as Formula E, the established motor racing championship, and Extreme E, the new SUV concept.
Air Race E will follow the format of Air Race 1, which is promoted as Formula 1 air racing, with eight planes competing wingtip-to-wingtip 10 metres above the ground.
In each race, the pilots will complete four laps of a 5-kilometre circuit measuring just 1.5 kilometres end-to-end and reach speeds of up to 400 kilometres per hour. The first plane across the line wins.
There will be three distinct race classes – open, performance and V-Class, or eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) and Airbus, the multinational aerospace corporation, is the official founding partner and most high-profile sponsor.
Air Race E aims to combine competitive sport with state-of-the-art technology and environmentally friendly solutions.
Jeff Zaltman, the chief executive of the series, tells GlobalData Sport: “We don’t only have an opportunity to kind of do a fun motorsport here, but we have an opportunity to do something really meaningful for the aerospace industry, for e-mobility, for the world.”
One of the aims is to drive the development and adoption of cleaner, faster, and more technologically advanced electric engines, which can be used in urban mobility vehicles and eventually commercial aircraft.
Zaltman is hopeful that all parties will buy into the ethos of the series.
The open class, which has already attracted 17 teams, is open to all manufacturers and all concepts of how to configure a powertrain.
There is a set of rules and list of criteria that teams must meet on a technical level but “they can connect those dots however they see fit,” according to the Air Race E chief.
He added that the performance class has “the same sort of formula as the open class, but we’re actually identifying the equipment suppliers, and were putting together a standard powertrain that can be modified by the teams.
“The idea behind that is that they can take something that is common across all teams and focus on the subsystems and the aerodynamics and some other cooling systems and things like that to see how to optimise the performance. [It will be possible] to study, for example, how eight different teams use the same equipment.”
A tender was recently undertaken to find a company or companies to build the standardised race plane, with the winner to be announced shortly.
The eVOTL class, is at an earlier stage of planning, and will have a different race format enabling the industry to garner information for future development.
Host cities and airports
Air Race E is in the process of seeking host cities and airports for the inaugural season in 2022, and the organisers claim it is crucial they have a passion for sustainability and embody the objectives of the series.
In particular, the hosts must analyse how they can adapt their airports in areas such as infrastructure, operating procedures, safety, the servicing of planes arriving and passenger turnaround.
“The hardest part of what we do is finding the space to race, it is quite tight and the audience can see everything, it’s right in front,” says Zaltman. “We don’t go around corners, we don’t disappear.”
“But when you think of a typical airport, which is our arena, our stadium, there are often houses next to the runaway, or something like that, so it is a challenge.”
However, infrastructure will not pose an obstacle once an airport is selected with the circuits being mapped out by markers.
Last October, Quantum Consultancy, an agency based in Edinburgh, Scotland, was appointed as Air Race E’s events strategy partner to aid with the search for venues.
The organisers have decided to stage the races at airports, as opposed to open spaces, to help raise awareness and change the way people think about travel, aviation and the environment.
Zaltman says: “It’s just like Formula E bring their sport to the cities. They want to do urban races because that’s where the [environmental] issue is, that’s where they want to express themselves and focus people’s attention.
“We’re doing that very much at airports. That’s where planes are and that’s where people point fingers when the environment is becoming more dirty, so that’s what we’re going to address.”
Host cities and airports will pay a hosting fee and share commercial rights, promotion duties and revenues with Air Race E.
“We will build the event with them (the hosts), so they have quite a lot more rights and interesting opportunities than a lot of other sports,” says Zaltman.
One of the challenges the organisers face is ensuring the necessary charging equipment as, with electric planes a relatively new innovation, airports are not yet kitted out.
There needs to be the right configuration to allow planes to recharge, which takes around 40 minutes, especially as there will be multiple races in a day.
However, the series could potentially work with a charging partner that would install the required equipment and infrastructure at the airports.
Target audience and sponsors
Air Race E is expected to attract interest from the existing air racing audience, but, in addressing topical issues such as decarbonisation and climate change, there is also seen to be demand from business and industry.
Zaltman says: “Eyes are shifting towards aviation of this kind.”
He adds that the series will be a place to “test new products, new technologies, in particular aerospace, but across electrification and be able to come together and use this as a vehicle to be able to take new products to market in the future”.
A broadcast media strategy is being devised to ensure that the coverage reaches the target markets and demographics, with the emphasis on exposure rather than revenue at this stage.
There will also be a strong digital element, including online streaming, tracking systems, positioning systems, telemetry, live real time data and other information that will allow viewers to engage with the activity in the cockpits.
In addition to Airbus, Ansys, the US-based engineering simulation company, has joined the Air Race E sponsorship portfolio as the official simulation software partner, and is contributing to the development of the planes and will provide technological support.
Other companies in the electric energy sphere will be involved in the ecosystem, and the organisers recently appointed MPA, the UK-based agency, to handle media activity and attract commercial backers in 2022.
Zaltman said that talks are taking place with companies in the aerospace, technology, automotive and software and security industries over potential deals.