Florida Tech Makes History With Pipistrel Velis Electro Purchase

School becomes first university in the United States to own and fly an electric aircraft.

Florida Tech has purchased a Velis Electro from Slovenian company Pipistrel. The purchase makes the school the first U.S. college to own and fly an electric airplane.

“While we can teach students flight test techniques using older aircraft, having them test an airplane with the latest technology prepares them for contemporary designs,” said Brian Kish, flight test engineering program chairman and aerospace associate professor.

The first electric-powered airplane certified in Europe, under EASA, the two-seat Velis Electro has a maximum speed of 181 km/h (98 knots), zero emissions from the aircraft itself, an engine with a noise level of 60 decibels (quieter than a Cessna 172, which typically registers 85 decibels), and a fuselage made of composite materials.

The airplane is awaiting FAA approval, so Florida Tech is flying it within the experimental category. Pipistrel announced earlier this week that these operations comprise the first flights of the aircraft in the U.S.

Florida Tech alumnus and former associate dean Isaac Silver was the pilot for the inaugural flight. He flew for 22 minutes, using about a third of the aircraft’s battery capacity and resulting in an operating cost of $1.03.

How It Started

The airplane made its way to Florida Tech through a research partnership between the university, Georgia Tech, and the FAA. As part of the work, university researchers were made aware of the Velis Electro. Then, university officials said Pipistrel’s chief test pilot, Sašo Knez, was invited to a meeting to discuss the airplane.

Pipistrel then offered the data on the model, which led to Florida Tech inquiring about using it for their own research. After internal discussions and a grant from the Buehler Perpetual Trust— which provides funding to institutions, organizations, and foundations that carry forward the research and development of new and improved aircraft and promote the field of aviation science and technology—the school put in the order last September. The airplane arrived at the school in July.

What’s Next

Now the school needs to get to know the airplane, so it needs to log significant time in it. That won’t only help the school, it’ll also benefit the FAA, which is in the process of awarding Florida Tech an $85,000 contract to provide data from the airplane’s first 50 flight hours.

Kish said the first thing the team will do in the early flights is to make sure they’re getting the performance that the aircraft flight manual says the Velis Electro should demonstrate. The team will test various power settings and configurations during the aircraft’s initial flight-test period.

“There’s different speeds, whether you use 20 kilowatts, up to 36 kilowatts for cruising, obviously the more power, you should go a little faster,” Kish said. “So, we’re going to spot check all those cruise settings and see what airspeed we get and see how long the battery charge lasts.”

While there’s a lot of work to do, Kish says his school is up for the challenge.

“We expect to see some drawbacks and limitations, but more importantly we expect to also see potential opportunities,” Kish said. “As the first U.S. customer, Florida Tech will report our research findings to Pipistrel and the FAA.

“This initial feedback is crucial in the engineering process to evolve the design as well as assist federal regulators on developing certification and training guidelines.”

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