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Siemens electric ferries and electric airplanes are regularly in the news. What's less well known is that the company introduced the world's first electric boat, the "Elektra," back in the late 1880s.
Siemens was an early installer of electrical equipment like telegraphs and lighting systems on shipboard. In 1886 it ran its first experiments with electrical ship engines. The world's first electric boat, the "Elektra," cruised the Spree River in Berlin. The power source was 80 storage batteries weighing a total of 1,800 kilograms, and putting out 5.9 kilowatts. The electric motor weighed 195 kilograms. But the batteries weighed too much and took up too much space, and their limited capacity left the Elektra's range too short. The experiments were soon discontinued.
Siemens set another milestone in 1933 with the "Potsdam," a fast East Asia steamer. Each of the ship’s two propellers was driven by its own electric motor. Electric power was provided by two turbogenerators. So four different combinations were available for providing propulsion and energy consumption could be optimally attuned to the ship's speed. Steam for the turbines was generated in Benson boilers – the first time high-pressure steam was used in ship design.
When Siemens began building aircraft engines in 1912, it started with air-cooled rotary engines. These were lighter and less complicated than water-cooled models.
But rotary engines weren't especially economical and did not have very long service lives. So the company stopped making them after World War I. Yet it did incorporate air cooling and a radial arrangement of cylinders into the designs for a definitive version. Rotary cooling was replaced by a design with better thermal characteristics, using highly heat-conductive lightweight metal.
In 1925, a new series of aircraft engines started production, with greater mechanical reliability and higher-quality cylinders. The air-cooled radial engines were used that same year for the Deutscher Rundflug, an air derby that covered some 5,300 kilometers and a total of 34 cities. Many of the winning airplanes were equipped with Siemens radial engines. The Lilienthal competition and the Grosser Süddeutscher Rundflug of 1926 were two other races in which airplanes equipped with Siemens engines finished among the leaders.
In 1928, Austrian captain, actor and inventor Johann Maria Bykow presented a device intended to make it possible to pilot aircraft automatically. He called it an autopilot. In 1932, Siemens acquired a total of 24 patents from Bykow, including his patents for gyroscopic compasses and one for an odometer. From then on the inventor would also work as an independent contractor for Siemens.
A first demonstration, held in 1935 for representatives of the government, army, police and the press, caused a sensation: The pilot was almost entirely replaced by the Siemens autopilot. Once the autopilot's instruments were set with specific flight data, the plane climbed to the desired altitude on its own and stayed there, maintained the desired flight path and also adjusted automatically for tilting and downward drift. By the end of the 1930s the system had developed far enough that even large aircraft could be steered reliably at night in the fog. Even blind landings were possible.
In 1997, Siemens worked together with the Schottel shipyard, the world's largest maker of all-around controllable ship drives and maneuvering systems. With the aim of developing a new ship drive and selling it internationally, the two partners formed the Siemens-Schottel Propulsor Consortium. Siemens contributed its recently developed engine with permanent-magnet excitation, as well as all the electrical equipment for the project. Based on its decades of experience in hydrodynamics, mechanical engineering and metallurgy, the Schottel firm built the propulsion unit, which went onto the market as the "Siemens-Schottel propulsor" (SSP).
It reduced fuel consumption 10 percent from conventional drive designs. Other advantages included better maneuverability, lower vibration and noise, a space-saving "outboard" installation of the drive and usability on all types of vessels.
In 1998, Siemens installed the world's first integrated taxi routing and surface movement guidance system for aircraft at Gardermoen, the new airport of the Norwegian capital, Oslo. Instead of the usual "follow me" trucks, computerized light signals guided the airplanes on the basis of the current traffic situation.
With previous systems, the plane's current position was detected by induction loops in the taxiway pavement and then transmitted to the control system for the airport's landing lights. In Oslo, this work was taken over by ground radar for the first time. This ensured maximum safety, especially in bad weather; ground collisions were reliably avoided. It also meant that flight controllers could guide more airplanes to the apron in considerably less time, significantly increasing the number of takeoffs and landings.
Siemens supplied the landing light control system and two ground radar systems for the installation. The necessary software was provided by the Dutch systems firm HITT, of Apeldoorn, Netherlands.
In 2015, the world's first battery-powered car and passenger ferry began operations between Lavik and Oppedal on Norway's Sognefjord. The emission-free ferry consumed 150 kilowatt hours (kWh) each way on the six-kilometer route – about as much as an average Norwegian household used in three days.
Siemens developed the ferry in cooperation with the Fjellstrand shipbuilding firm, and delivered the complete electric drive system, charging stations, and lithium ion batteries, which were charged with electricity derived from water power. On the ship itself, Siemens installed the BlueDrive PlusC electric drive system, which included a battery and control system, controls for the thruster and propellers, an energy management system and an integrated alarm system. The integrated automation systems, which were connected with all other subsystems via Profibus, controlled and monitored the machinery and auxiliary systems on board.
The switch from diesel to battery power lowered fuel costs for the owner, Norled, by as much as 60 percent. And it eliminated the emission of 570 metric tons of carbon dioxide and 15 metric tons of nitrogen oxides.
In June 2016, an aerobatic airplane equipped with a Siemens drive system completed its maiden flight, at the same time setting a world record for power-to-weight ratio: the new electric airplane engine, weighing only 50 kilograms, delivered about 260 kilowatts (kW) of continuous electric power – five times as much as comparable drives.
More records and milestones on the way toward electric air travel followed in 2017. At the Dinslaken Schwarze Heide airfield in Germany, the electric plane reached a maximum speed of about 340 kilometers per hour over a distance of three kilometers. And shortly after that, the "Extra 330LE" achieved another first, as the world's first electric plane to tow a glider to altitude – to 600 meters in just 76 seconds.
Electric drives are scalable. Siemens and Airbus will be using the record engine as a basis to develop electric hybrid airplanes to serve regional routes.