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This tiny electric jet startup thinks it can reinvent regional air travel

This tiny electric jet startup thinks it can reinvent regional air travel


Zunum Aero, the hummingbird of the skies

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Zunum Aero

Flying from San Francisco to Los Angeles can be a huge pain in the ass. You can expect to spend over $200 on your plane ticket, plus another five hours of traveling door-to-door thanks to traffic, security, and other headaches. This is the type of hassle-rich trip — short but overly expensive and overly complicated — that a new startup called Zunum Aero is aiming to reinvent.

The Kirkland, Washington-based company, which came out of stealth mode today, plans to build a fleet of hybrid electric jets to sell to major carriers for service on densely traveled regional routes like San Francisco to Los Angeles or Boston to Washington, DC. The company has received backing from Boeing and JetBlue Technology Ventures, a subsidiary of JetBlue Airways.

Lower operating costs (i.e., no fueling) will allow carriers to reduce fares by 40 to 80 percent, they predict. And by flying a smaller aircraft that would be subject to fewer TSA regulations, Zunum claims it will take less time to go through security before boarding one of its planes.

SF to LA in half the time and half the cost

Zunum aims to build several models of hybrid-electric propulsion jets. At launch, its first class of aircraft will be tiny, in the 10–15 foot range, with a 10-passenger capacity and a range of up to 700 miles on a single charge. (Think San Francisco to Portland or Atlanta to DC.) Those planes can be expected to roll off the assembly line by the early 2020s, the company’s CEO Ashish Kumar told The Verge. By the 2030s, as electric battery technology improves, Zunum hopes to build larger aircraft that can carry up to 50 passengers and travel up to 1,000 miles on a single charge. (Think Seattle to LA or Boston to Jacksonville, Florida.)

“We’re entering the golden era where we’ll have high-speed links to every community on the backs of quiet, sustainable hybrid-electric technology,” Kumar said. “And that’s going to happen really fast.”

Zunum has been in the works for three years. Kumar is a veteran of Silicon Valley, having worked at Google, Microsoft, Dell, and McKinsey. His co-founders are Matt Knapp, an engineer who has helped build jets and rockets, and Kiruba Haran, a University of Illinois professor who leads a NASA-funded program to develop electric airliners.

The regions in which Zunum Aero sees its short-haul flights operating.
The regions in which Zunum Aero sees its short-haul flights operating.
Image: Zunum Aero

Zunum’s aircraft will feature hybrid electric motors with the capacity to accept recharging power from a variety of sources. Because airplanes are typically kept in service for up to 30 years, Kumar says its important for Zunum’s aircraft to be future proof. That means designing them to be compatible with future battery designs and range-extending generators, with an eye toward ultimately switching from hybrid propulsion to fully electric motors once the technology catches up.

While more and more electric cars are introduced onto the road, electric-powered aviation is still in its infancy. Tougher demands such as battery weight, in addition to regulatory requirements, have resulted in far fewer strides in electric aviation, experts say. An all-electric plane in Germany recently broke a record, flying 211 mph over a distance of under two miles. Airbus has been developing its own electric plane prototype called the E-Fan concept, which became the first electric plane to fly across the English Channel in 2015.

Having just completed work on its powertrain and preliminary design of its aircraft, Zunum says its now in the “build phase.” Still, the startup has a ways to go if it’s to meet its projections. Zunum is about as small as they come, with under 10 employees right now, but Kumar says the plan is to ramp up aggressively. He wouldn’t reveal the amount of funding he’s received from Boeing and JetBlue, nor the total amount of money raised.

What Kumar would disclose, however, is the origin of his company’s name. “Zunum” is a derivation of “tzunuum,” the Mayan word for hummingbird. Think small, fast, and quiet.