Electric manned aircraft are under development by a number of businesses, although they are still in their infancy. Large planes require too much energy to store using current battery technology for lengthy flights, with the exception of brief hops. Electric aircraft capable of transporting lots of people or large amounts of freight over long distances may eventually become a reality as technological progress improves. As a result, most people believe that electric aviation is a concept that is yet to be realized in the present tense.

What if I told you that even today, fossil-fueled planes are being phased out by electrical-powered aircraft all over the world? The good news is that it’s happening, and fast. But it’s coming from an unlikely source.

Given the significantly lower costs, drone usage is rapidly surpassing electric vehicle usage in the United States and around the world. Not only are drones saving lives and replacing fossil-fueled vehicles, but they’re giving many people their first small taste of EV ownership.

Utilities are finding that drones are especially useful for them, and it’s only set to get better. For example, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory are combining sensors, drones, and machine learning to prevent fires while also reducing their damage to the electric grid due to climate change. Engineers are creating remote sensing technologies that can detect electrical arcing and faulty equipment as well as fire spread patterns.

So, it makes sense for utilities to include not only EVs in their street fleets, but try to make use of small electric aviation, too. And, that’s exactly what Volkswagen and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) plan to do, starting with a test vehicle.

By 2030, the Tennessee Valley Authority plans to operate an all-electric sedan and SUV fleet. Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, TVA’s service area spreads across most of Tennessee as well as elements of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Additionally, there are small areas of Georgia covered by TVA services.

“Electricity is the clean, low-cost, reliable fuel that will decarbonize our nation’s transportation network,” said Don Moul, TVA Executive Vice President and COO. “TVA is on the leading edge of electric vehicle adoption, and with partners like Volkswagen we are moving farther and faster together to accelerate the use of electricity in all sectors of the economy to make our carbon-free vision a reality.”

TVA aims to replace its carbon-emitting vehicle fleet with nearly 400 light-duty and 800 medium-duty EVs, along with the installation of more than 300 charging stations at TVA facilities, in order to achieve its objective. As one of its early measures, the utility provider has partnered with Volkswagen on a year-long test using their ID.4 EV to examine vehicle usage capabilities and applications.

Volkswagen will be loaning TVA an SUV for this test, which will be enhanced with Volkswagen components and third-party accessories. This vehicle, dubbed the “Mobile Drone Response Vehicle” is being loaned so that TVA can test drivers in a number of real-world response scenarios. The car comes complete with a custom storage unit in the trunk for housing drone and field equipment as well as a portable power station.

The vehicle’s roof rack and a Thule Caprock platform roof rack with a Thule retractable side awning provide flexibility. The SUV is freed from limitations thanks to eighteen-inch wheels and all-terrain tires, as well as a heavy-duty suspension. A full-screen digital rearview mirror with all functions displayed allows the driver to have complete vision of the vehicle ahead. On the Volkswagen display at SEMA on November 1st, 2022 (#10509), the Mobile Drone Response Vehicle will make its debut.

Volkswagen also revealed a second ID.4 vehicle to celebrate the partnership, which features an exterior graphics package designed to increase visibility of the test fleet program. The all-electric SUV is equipped with 18”-inch wheels wrapped in rugged treaded tires, as well as Volkswagen roof carrier bars and a Thule brand Canyon Roof Basket.

“TVA has a long history of innovation, and we’re thrilled to collaborate with them in their transition to a fully-electrified fleet,” said Hein Schafer, Senior Vice President Product Marketing & Strategy, Volkswagen of America. “This effort is leading by example, and with the aid of our ID.4 vehicles, stands to show industry how viable EVs are in fleet applications.”

TVA has been involved with Volkswagen in e-mobility research for quite some time now. In fact, back in March of 1978, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) chose TVA as the host utility company to test and demonstrate electric vehicles through Research Project RP 1136-5. For this project, five Kombi vans and five 8-passenger buses were purchased from Volkswagen. All told, VW produced around 70 electric vans specifically for this type of fleet research purposes. The design of these electric Kombis and Buses was based on the production Type 2 model at the time.

For those unfamiliar, the ID.4 is Volkswagen’s first all-electric SUV, and it’s also the brand’s first global EV. It was built upon Volkswagen’s MEB electric vehicle architecture — the modular electric drive matrix — which synthesizes the advantages of a purpose-built EV with other performance, packaging, and value features that have been present in VW vehicles for decades. The ID.4 competes against other models in the world’s largest market segment — compact SUVs — and is currently produced at factories located in Germany and China, as well as Chattanooga, right in the TVA’s service area.

More Than A Publicity Stunt

It would have been real easy for VW and the TVA to build some awful wannabe Ghostbusters car and call it a “drone response vehicle.” But, that’s not what they did here.

Looking at the kit they’ve put together for testing, it looks to be a seriously useful setup for drone operators. How do I know? I’m a drone operator, and I’ve done some work for utility companies, departments of transportation, and other big projects. You need a good home base (the awning gives you that), someplace to charge batteries (they included a power station), and a versatile vehicle that can get to the jobs without getting stuck.

Volkswagen is giving the TVA all of that, and they’re starting with just one vehicle before they kit out a whole fleet. They’re definitely doing things right with this.

Featured image provided by Volkswagen.


This content was originally published here.