There is a quiet confidence about the cofounders of VoltAero. A pioneering green aircraft start-up, it has developed a unique parallel electric-hybrid propulsion system that is working. At least 60 companies are now researching and developing fixed-wing electric aircraft, according to Bloomberg research, so it is a crowded market. But there are very few operators as experienced as the founders of VoltAero.
Meeting two of its trio of founders in Dublin on Monday, chief executive Jean Botti and director general Marina Evans (the third founder technical director Didier Esteyne is in France), it is hard not to be impressed by their track record. Their aircraft are already flying when so many others are still only blueprints or fledgling prototypes that may have raised hundreds of millions of euro but are still unproven.
From Airbus to groundbreaking start-up
VoltAero’s founders come from the European aviation tradition as all worked for many years in Airbus, Europe’s aeroplane manufacturing champion, which is valued at over €100 billion. Botti was chief technical officer with Airbus from 2006 until 2016. He is best known for leading Airbus’s pioneering E-Fan all-electric aircraft, the first battery-powered plane to cross the English Channel in 2011. It was a significant breakthrough that led to Botti and his team winning numerous awards.
Evans was previously general director of Airbus Group Innovations so she worked closely with Botti, as did Esteyne, a test pilot who flew the E-Fan across the Channel. The trio founded VoltAero in 2017 but their shared experience in developing electric planes goes back to 2008, when they first started working in the area for Airbus. “Airbus unfortunately closed their small electric programme,” Evans recalled. “So we started to look around and think about doing something together. At that time, we thought electric was not technically or economically the best solution so, instead, we started thinking about hybrid.”
VoltAero’s first plane, called Casio S, was launched in 2020. “It’s been flying for over three years,” Evans said. Botti interrupts to open his laptop and show me the most recent plane developed by VoltAero. “This is the plane of today,” he explains. “It has a big door that is suitable for cargo and for people, including people with mobility difficulties like Jack [Kavanagh, the disability campaigner]. This is very important for us. This can take four or five passengers (plus pilot) but we also have planes for four to ten people.”
Botti opens a slide showing how VoltAero’s team have progressively improved their planes, extending their range and abilities. “We can take off and land all-electric, but after a certain distance the plane becomes hybrid,” Botti explains. This combination of electric motors with internal combustion engine gives its Cassio aircraft propulsive power ranging from 330 to 600 kilowatts. For shorter hops of 150 kilometres, the plan can fly entirely electrically but it has its other engine available for longer distances, as well as providing an extra layer of safety to switch to if there are any issues.
Evans said VoltAero believed hybrid was the future for small planes. “Jean always said we need to do evolution by evolution. You incrementally grow. We never believed that somebody could go right away all electric. We are seeing all these (electric-only) projects which on paper have raised a lot of money. We see a lot of people talking about things who have never built even one aircraft.” She said VoltAero had focused on hybrid from the start. It had built up valuable IP over many years, while most of its competitors were at a much earlier stage.
VoltAero has raised €18 million from a combination of private equity and French state and European Union support. “It is about half equity and half grants,” Evans said. Is Airbus involved? “It is not its cup of tea to do small aeroplanes,” Botti said. “I did the roadmap for Airbus from electric to hydrogen but then they decided to scrap it. That is why we are here!”
VoltAero is currently raising €32 million to bring its business to scale production. “We are in the middle of raising it, but it is very positive,” Botti said. “We have over 200 aircraft preordered from all over the world including America, New Zealand and the UK,” Evans added. Air New Zealand said to really make an impact and scale will require huge investment not just by VoltAero but also in the infrastructure required to support new types of planes. How will this be paid for? “You will have to subsidise it to some extent, just like the automotive industry was subsidised,” Botti said. “Otherwise it will not take off.”
Botti said he was not convinced that some electric plane startups would ever significantly work because of the weight of battery required to keep them in the air over distances. “It takes so much energy,” Botti said. “With us, the energy required for landing is minimal, so we can extend our range much longer.” Botti clicks open another slide on his laptop. It shows a manufacturing plant under construction in Rochefort in southwestern France. “Do you see the 2.3-kilometer runway?” Botti gestures. “That was built for Ryanair who never came in the end. But it is a completely done runway with 7 acres around it for us to expand into.”
Declan Ryan, whose family founded Ryanair, said in October 2023 that he was planning a new electric airline but was still weighing up which plane to go with. Will VoltAero talk to him on its trip to Dublin? “Of course we want to see Declan and talk to him,” Evans said. He said use cases for VoltAero-type planes could be for cargo, flight near residential areas and connecting people on shorter distances like, say, Cork to Dublin before getting on a more traditional plane to fly to Miami. “Long distance is for big aircraft. But this is about connecting point to point.”
Botti said big decisions were being made around the world about which new green aircraft to go with. “All the world is talking about this,” Evans added. “Big companies are thinking about this. It will change perception when they invest. Aircraft leasing companies and governments are all thinking about it but it will need incentives and state support.”
Ireland is a global capital for aviation leasing and is an important player in other areas of aviation. Is it doing enough to prepare for the new wave of aeroplanes and investment? “Ireland should be leading from the front like Norway and the Nordic countries. If you don’t lead you will fall behind,” Botti said. “You are in front today but these other countries are taking the initiative and doing it. Look at New Zealand and the Nordic countries, you will be left behind if you don’t act. Ireland is the original country for leasing companies and it has Ryanair, the biggest airline in the world… You have an advantage at the moment but you could lose it.”
“The development you see here has taken a lot of years to take the technology to maturity,” Botti said. “This is 200-plus flights and 10,000 kilometres.” Botti said another advantage of VoltAero was how quiet its aircraft were. “We have a very nice low-level noise. This isn’t just about CO2 pollution, it is also about noise. If I want to do a cargo run and take off at night, I don’t want to disturb people.”
“We want to be able to operate 24/7. This is not a bullshit paper study. What we are doing is real. You can come any day, Tom, to see our aeroplanes flying. This is what we do. We also plan to test hydrogen on these planes too.” VoltAero is up against rivals with huge funding. Will it beat them? “Are we going to be the winners? I don’t know. Are we going to be leaders? Absolutely. There is not one winner here, there will be a number.”
“There is a very small number,” Evans added. “We have a first-mover advantage.”
“I agree,” Botti added. “I don’t know if we will be the winner but for sure we will be at the top. We have been consistent since day one six years ago that hybrid is the way to go. With our technology, you can use both energies independently and together. That is a big plus, and we have the patents!”