Rajkaran Singh Kharbanda, director, industry and business consulting at EuroNorth, Dassault Systèmes, discusses the steps that need to be taken to decarbonise the aviation industry

The aerospace industry is on the verge of one of the most dramatic evolutions of the way we fly since humans first took flight. Currently worth £8bn to the UK economy in terms of value add and employing 111,000 people within the region, this is an industry that needs to take action to protect jobs, boost the economy and achieve its net zero ambitions.

Decarbonising aviation is now on the agenda of every executive in the aerospace industry. The pandemic and related disruptions have led aviation experts to outline structural changes that could rebuild the industry and enable their low carbon aspirations. However, this process is easier said than done. Without a proper ecosystem to address and implement end-to-end low-carbon operations and infrastructure and the right technology, the industry’s revenue models could be at risk.

While there are many possible technological levers today such as green hydrogen or electric aircraft, the industry is now focusing on building the right expertise around the industrialisation of these new technologies and building the right ecosystem of partners to deliver them at scale.

Investing in infrastructure

The future of aerospace will heavily rely on having the right infrastructure across the globe to level up operations. Infrastructure can encompass a multitude of things; for example, airports are considering how new/more sustainable aircraft shapes can fit into gates and stands designed for standard tube- and-wing aircraft and what this may mean for investment in ground infrastructure over the coming decades.

A new type of infrastructure also needs to be considered for regional and intra-city flights, which will be electric. New vertiports, small, city-based hubs for vertical take-off and landing, could sit alongside pre-existing general aviation airfields to create a full-scale, deeply connected aviation ecosystem. Urban Airports is a classic example of such new infrastructure initiatives. New aircraft technology development will also mean we need digital solutions to support its acceleration. Faster design and development will be critical for a company’s time to market whilst also meeting regulatory requirements.

For the UK to be at the forefront of sustainable innovation, we must work together alongside key stakeholders to create the right environment to develop capabilities and technologies to tackle decarbonisation. The approach must not be UK-centric but focus on scaling sustainable operations globally, whilst maintaining innovation levels. Digitalisation will greatly aid the industry’s progress and will require leaders to invest heavily in solutions for greater success.

Accelerating the adoption of virtual twins

Virtual twin solutions can help the industry’s decarbonisation plan, providing the digital expression of a product or industrial system’s full definition in how it is shaped, behaves, and interacts with other systems. It starts from the earliest planning and design stages of its lifecycle to manufacturing, operations, sustainment, and disposal. Virtual twins will also enable aviation companies to explore scenarios collaboratively, predict future behaviours and deliver the right solution, at scale, from the very first time.

This technology also enables the acceleration of aircraft prototype testing. By simulating advanced 3D designs based on real-life scenarios, engineers can virtually test, validate and accurately predict an aircraft feature’s performance well before production. This way, critical validation rights can be quickly obtained at the design stage, whilst reducing emissions, costs, waste and use of resources.

UK-based start-up Vertical Aerospace is doing exactly this, tapping into our virtual twin capabilities to design their eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft). Specifically tapping into our “Reinvent the Sky” solution, they are building sustainable aircrafts, suitable for inter- and intra-city travel. The process is intricate and requires several stakeholders from government/regulatory authorities to designers to be involved in the process. Designing and collaborating on the developments of these aircrafts in a virtual environment allows them to simulate designs, before creating physical parts and even ensuring the design is compliant with industry regulations.

Adoption of these solutions will be critical for the industry to speed up design, testing and validation for development and certification while maintaining the extremely high safety standards that we require in aviation. Even certain fuels like Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) need to be tightly controlled, not just for commercial reasons, but to ensure that companies fulfil their commitments and governments can ensure that mandates are being met. While SAFs will only represent a share of global fuel supply, digitalisation will be crucial to enable these systems and ensure traceability and transparency.

Building the right expertise

Looking at the UK government’s 10-point strategy to deliver an innovative and sustainable aviation sector, investing in infrastructure and digital solutions is just as important as building the right expertise. It’s no surprise that the pandemic posed an existential threat to the aviation sector. Now recovery has started there is a chance to build back better than ever before. Improvements should not only be focused on building an industry fit for the future but one that’s world-leading.

Moving forward, it is crucial that all key stakeholders play an active role in the sustainable development of the industry. For example, airports provide vital aviation links to businesses that need to trade within the UK and abroad. Now governments and airports need to work together to rebuild and grow those links to support jobs and create new economic opportunities across all regions of the UK.

Additional changes in regulations also mean there needs to be global collaboration to support further growth of the industry. Global investment in the environment will then give policymakers and regulators the confidence that the industry need to take the next steps towards the future.

With the right policy environment, long-term skills plan and an inspiring level of ambition, digitalisation will be the catalyst for the future of flight. In the same way that the spirit of going ever faster and further was central to the early days of flight a century ago, digitalisation, infrastructure and expertise will be at the core of everything that aviation can and will offer to improve productivity, connectivity and sustainability of society at large in the future. While net zero by 2050 may be feasible, the journey there will pose difficulties.

However, I believe we have all the key components to make this work, we just need to act by investing and implementing the right solutions to get us there in time.

You can read more about how digitalisation can decarbonise the aviation industry in a new whitepaper from Dassault Systèmes, ADS, and Roland Berger, which deep dives into the current state of the sector and how to evolve it to meet net-zero targets. You can access the full report here.
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