Rolls-Royce and Hyundai have inked one of the unlikeliest of collaborations in the annals of aerospace, with a plan to partner on electric propulsion systems for the skies.
The bespoke British brand and mass-market Korean automaker announced this week at the UK’s Farnborough Airshow a memorandum of understanding to explore applying fuel cells (which turn hydrogen into electricity) to advance air mobility.
Fuel cells could quadruple the range of a battery-electric aircraft, according to Matheu Parr, customer director at Rolls-Royce Electrical, the marque’s electric aviation division.
Rolls-Royce, the world’s second-largest aircraft engine manufacturer after General Electric, launched the unit in January 2022 to answer the pressing question, “What is the electrification of aerospace?” Parr said.
Fuel cell technology unlocks a world of potential in an industry poised for exponential growth over the next couple of decades. Consulting firm Roland Berger forecasts that the urban air mobility market will mushroom from an industry worth $1 billion in 2030 to $90 billion by 2050.
“It’s an order of scale above where we normally operate,” Parr said. “That’s where Hyundai comes in.”
Discussions between the brands began at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show, where Hyundai detailed its plans to focus on different modes of urban transportation.
The project will borrow from Rolls-Royce’s legacy in aviation and Hyundai’s expertise in fuel-cell technology to deliver a battery-electric aircraft demo by 2025. Parr said the conveyance will likely be a nine-seat fixed-wing aircraft like a Tecnam P-Volt.
The trend toward transportation companies rebranding as mobility technology businesses has opened up the skies as a new place to pilot electric and autonomous technology. Those developments may even wind up back on the ground, powering a new generation of electric vehicles.
Rolls-Royce, which makes engines for the Airbus A350, dons a decorated past after more than a century in aerospace. Its technology has powered historic flights from the Comet—the first aircraft to offer commercial service between New York and London, in 1958—to the Concorde, the late 20th-century supersonic jet that shortened the journey to three hours.
Hyundai is no stranger to the skies, either. The South Korean automaker is spending billions on flying taxis, eVTOL aircraft, and other advanced air mobility modes to transport the people and goods of tomorrow. To oversee the aviation efforts, Hyundai hired an aerospace expert as the chief technology officer of Supernal, its Washington, DC-based urban air mobility business.