Aura Aero, a Toulouse-based manufacturer, is developing a 19-seat electric commuter aircraft as a starting point for higher ambitions to enter the 40-70-seat market.
Based in Toulouse at the heart of one of the leading aeronautic hubs, the three-year-old aerospace company is developing a design and manufacturing processes for fully digital electric aircraft, initially starting with a 19-seat passenger version and a cargo version.
The Toulouse-based manufacturer has created a clean-sheet design while integrating new and existing technologies such as fly-by-wire, and is driving digital efficiencies to build momentum towards creation of a commercial electric aircraft.
Its current prototype aircraft is called Integral, with which Aura Aero is achieving design and production maturity at a fraction of normal cost, and will carry that onto its 19-seat, Electric Regional Aircraft (ERA).
The firm, co-funded by ex-Airbus engineer Jeremy Caussade, has recently mandated regional aircraft remarketing specialist Aelis Group for the commercial side of the business.
“Aura Aero was created to position us in the market with different elements surrounding a centralised project: developing a hybrid aircraft from Toulouse with local suppliers and partners. There is an industrial revolution coming up, not only on the industrial side but also regarding the transformation of the aircraft sector as it responds to climate challenges,” he says.
“Our strategy is to create a manufacturer from the digital fundamentals of an aircraft that will decarbonise the industry. We have worked over the past four years on light aircraft and general aviation products because that regulation is ready.
"In our 'greener-bigger' strategy plan we are now starting to work on a 19-seat regional commuter version of the two-seater model."
He is optimistic that a low-carbon alternative to current technology is the first step for a commuter aircraft because of its relatively short range and missions.
“We aim for a zero-emission aircraft longer term.”
He argues that a regional aircraft needs less energy that a helicopter or an eVTOL aircraft for commuter missions.
“We are aiming to decarbonise the sector and are using the best of the two worlds: the current manufacturer know-how and technologies along with the future actors in the sector in terms of energy.”
“We are entering a fascinating era that needs to provide change in our sector.
“We have started rationally with an electric propulsion of the blades, an electric engine and a pack battery to store the energy. On a 19-seat commuter aircraft we have turbo-generators at the back of the aircraft, acting as margins.”
The short-haul flights will be all electrically powered and the turbo-generators will only serve as a back-up, using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) technology.
“We can do double downsizing by reducing the thermal engine and the electrical engine like Toyota did with the Prius car in the 2000s. The utilisation of the electric and thermal engines was clever.
“Our aim is to produce an aircraft that requires less energy but can be versatile with electric propulsion. We cannot only produce a SAF powered aircraft: SAF is part of the equation but the industry needs to go further.”
For Caussade, the criteria for future aircraft are no longer the same as before.
“We don’t have a choice. If we don’t do anything, regional aircraft in that space will stop operating, albeit in different phases. Aircraft won’t be financed either.”
Electrifying residual value
Aelis' Group chief executive officer Philippe Lienard believes that the ERA and other electric aircraft will show additional value as they age.
"A conventional engine goes to a shop as a performance restoration, but the ERA 19-seater will improve its performance with time," he says.
"The residual value of an aircraft is core to an investor.”
"Our focus is not the conventional engine, but the battery. An electric aircraft allows a reduction of maintenance events and maintenance cost and eventually ownership costs."
Lienard believes that regional aviation will feel a significant impact from carbon taxes within the next 15 years.
"There is also a climate urgency now, not 2050. The first aircraft could be available for entry into service in 2027 as we are aiming for a first flight by the end of 2024.
"We are decarbonising because we are reducing CO2 emissions during the flight by consuming less. The electric engine can perform on the first hour of a typical flight, including taxiing and take-off.
"Our engine is optimised in its management therefore it will be an engine that performs with minimum consumption.
The economic cost of the aircraft is based on reduced Jet-A1 consumption and maintenance of the turbine.
The company has a milestone next month that will validate the concept and the next stage will be the industrial launch.
Its biggest markets are the USA and Europe.
"We are addressing the passenger and cargo express market but also the aircraft can serve utility, United Nations, special missions, or medical applications," says Lienard.
"We estimate that around 5,000 aircraft are in operation in that category today with an extremely high fleet age. The Beech 1900 models are the most popular models.
He adds that today's 5,000-strong fleet will be smaller by 2027-30.
"The 19-seater is the starting point in the regional market. We are developing a pressurised aircraft with a normal turboprop speed at 250 knots at 25,000 feet with short-take-off capability at 800 metres."
Caussade says 40- and 70-seat versions will naturally derive from the 19-seater.
“By using our know-how on the EASA CS-23, an European Aviation Safety Agency certification specification for normal, utility, aerobatic, and commuter category aircraft We can attack other markets via a scale-up of the technology we are developing.”
He is convinced that Aura can take a large portion of the 30-seat market because of a future aircraft's sustainability credentials and because of a lower cost per seat derived from the economies of the fuel consumption, engine maintenance and the digital features of the aircraft improving the control over operations and maintenance (digital twin).
Operating costs of a 19-seater are expensive per passenger. In addition to this, the carbon price is nil today but in the future it will be at a significant cost. The commuter regional space is today expensive and with the introduction of a carbon tax it will become economically unsustainable - many airlines will disappear, if they do not re-invent themselves with decarbonized aircraft."
Last autumn asset management firm Amedeo reached a provisional agreement to acquire 200 of the 19-seat electric-powered regional aircraft (ERA) under development by France’s Aura Aero.
The remarketing mandate with Aelis Group will open further channels in the regional aircraft sector.
“The leasing companies are interested in the product. Our commercial plan covers a 5-10-year period and our objective is to be a standard reference in our sector.”
Funding has been sourced from the public and private sector. French capital investor Innovacom invested in Aura Aero in 2021 and the company is working on a second fundraising of €30 million to €50 million that it hopes to finalise this summer.
Crowdfunding is marginal in terms of volume compared with other sources of financing. But it is important in terms of awareness.
"Our €1.7 million raise has attracted 1,500 additional new partners," says Caussade.