Magpie Aviation may make zero-emission flights a reality

Their unique towing approach can be a game-changer in sub-regional travel.
Can Emir
Magpie Aviation's towing concept
Magpie Aviation's towing concept

Magpie Aviation 

California-based start-up Magpie Aviation has developed a unique approach to electric airplanes that could revolutionize the future of zero-emission flights. 

Today’s battery technology is still not powerful enough to make practical zero-emission flights a reality, leaving clean-energy innovators with two incomplete options: flying a plane full of batteries or one full of people – but not both. Magpie Aviation believes it has found a solution by towing planes together, which could extend the rear plane’s range by hundreds of miles.

Towing planes is not new, with military use going back to World War II. However, applying it to the world of green transportation is a new concept. Magpie Aviation's concept uses one or more electric aircraft to act as a tractor plane towing a passenger (or cargo) aircraft using a long cable. The towed plane would have enough battery power for takeoff, landing, and flying to alternate airports but not enough to fly the full distance on its own.

The lead plane would take on the bulk of the traction, and when its battery is depleted, it could hand off towing duties to another electric towing aircraft to extend the rear plane’s range. Magpie CEO Damon Vander Lind explains, “You get towed until you’ve depleted down to your reserve in the lead aircraft, and then you swap in another tow aircraft.” Magpie has already conducted successful small-scale tests using a synthetic fiber rope around 330 ft. long and envisions a later commercial version to use nearly mile-long cables.

While this approach is still a regional solution impractical for cross-country or international flights, Vander Lind says it could allow for a trip from San Francisco to Seattle – far beyond the sub-regional distances battery-powered passenger flights can travel on their own. Magpie expects advances in battery tech to allow it to tow single-aisle airliners eventually. The concept, mainly targeting electric planes, could also work with hybrid, hydrogen, and standard aircraft in low-power modes.

Decarbonizing aviation

Magpie Aviation's electric aircraft towing concept is aimed at reducing emissions and decarbonizing aviation, which is essential for combating climate change. Battery-powered electric propulsion is an optimal solution from the point of view of emissions reduction. However, the low energy density of batteries remains a key obstacle for adoption for aircraft larger than sub-regional scale.

Magpie Aviation's founders were previously at Kitty Hawk, an advanced air mobility startup funded by Google’s Larry Page, before it shut down in 2022. Kitty Hawk also partnered with Boeing to set up Wisk Aero, another advanced air mobility startup that is pursuing fully autonomous flight and continues to operate.

Magpie Aviation plans to scale up its testing gradually and believes it could be implemented commercially by 2030. The start-up is currently working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with an eye toward certification. Magpie Aviation's towing concept could transform the way we think about green transportation and help to make zero-emission flights a reality.

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