Tech Students Explore Electric Aircraft


There’s a revolution happening in electric transportation. 

Electric cars promise to make automobiles more reliable and cheaper to operate. Now, two engineering students at the School of Mines want to help extend those advantages to the world of flight.

They are doing research into using electric motors in aircraft.

Aviation used to be the exclusive world of fuel burning engines. It still is, for the most part, but these two brothers see a better way to do it and they are taking practical scientific steps to make it happen.  

Phillip and John Hillard are mechanical engineering students at the School of Mines. They want to help
explore all the applications of electric motors for flight.  

“We’re really designing this from an approach; we want to make it as user friendly as we can. Kind of open up a new market of pilots,” Phillip Hillard said.

The Hillards are starting relatively small. They’ve designed a 40 pound backpack that contains a battery with enough power for a 25 to 30 minute flight. It includes a lightweight electric motor bolted to a carbon fiber propellor. The backpack is connected by lines to a conventional paraglider wing.  

The main focus of the testing is with the motor, propellor, and battery.   

“It’s a beautiful time where batteries are affordable enough and high performance enough to kind of start integrating with existing sports,” said John Hillard. 

John Hillard is the test pilot for this flight at Custer State Park. Once he starts his ground run, he turns on the motor and begins to rise almost immediately. 

“Electric solves a lot of problems. So really where you gain the most I think is in simplicity, weight. It’s
quieter. You’ve got a lot more power on demand,” said Phillip Hillard. 

An electric motor has more torque at a lower rpm, so the bringing in power can help a pilot get out of a tight spot more quickly, making the machine safer. Both brothers are convinced that because electric motors are simpler (they have only one moving part) they will also be more reliable, which will also add to the margin of safety.   

“We can get the thrust that we want. We can get the weight that we want,” said John Hillard. 

As John rises above the airport, he and his brother can already see those features of their new machine being demonstrated. And beyond the engineering aspects, the quieter, safer and more reliable operation adds to the already exhilarating experience of flight.  

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