This is especially important for helicopters, according to Chretien. He observed that most helicopter crashes result from pilot error, followed by mechanical failure. Though the mechanisms behind helicopter flight are complex, the mechanical underpinnings are old and haven't changed much since helicopters were first developed, despite the preponderance of modern electronic instruments.
"It didn't make sense to me that the most advanced platform would be running on medieval technologies," he said. "It's an issue when it comes to reliability."
That's not to say electrics are without their troubles. As a new technology, electric propulsion is not necessarily more dangerous, but the field is less mature than conventional flight. After breaking the speed record, Yates' plane was forced to make a dead-stick landing when a malfunctioning cell knocked out power to the motor.
Storing the electrons needed to power an airplane also carries its own unique risks, as poorly cooled high-technology batteries can catch fire or explode.
Rotary aircraft are particularly challenging because their flight characteristics depend so much on weight and relative power. Even Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., one of the world's largest helicopter manufacturers, struggled with developing an electric aircraft and scrapped plans to test a prototype last year, citing safety concerns.
Chretien's prototype electric helicopter is scarcely more than steel tubing and a chair. Powered by up to 600 amps from 128 pounds of lithium-ion polymer batteries, the contraption can fly using two pairs of counter-rotating coaxial blades for up to 12 minutes.
Though it is just a proof concept, he said the industry is due for another technological leap now that manufacturers are getting diminishing returns from developments in turbines and piston engines. "If we can succeed in helicopters, the fixed-wing market will be a breeze," he said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500