There is plenty of groundbreaking innovation going on within the aerospace industry but the revolution won’t happen overnight. Sarah Wray looks at the work that’s already underway and the milestones we can expect along the journey.
For the theme of the Revolution.Aero event, held in London last week, the clue is in the name.
However, it was clear from the conference that while some aspects of aerospace’s next era have the potential to be revolutionary – not just technologically but societally as well – we’ve a long way to go. It was obvious, too, that the evolution is well underway, with fierce activity in electric propulsion, eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) air taxis, supersonic flight, new business models and more.
Unsurprisingly, certification is one of the major challenges when it comes to these new forms of mobility. A number of companies agreed that their strategy is to take an iterative approach, rather than ‘wait and see’.
Steve Burns, founder of SureFly (a hybrid eVTOL ‘personal helicopter’), said: “[Our] vehicle [has been] designed for one thing: to get through FAA certification – it’s a very simple hybrid vehicle and something that we think they can pass.”
This means there are compromises, he noted, in areas such as efficiency and transitioning.
“We are trying to get to market with something as soon as possible,” Burns said, adding the company decided not to wait for “the magic battery to happen”, although he has no doubt it will.
Experts throughout the event noted that there are as many as 150 commercial eVTOL aircraft in development at the moment. A further 100 are expected to launch in the next two years, although it’s unlikely that all of these companies will survive.
Burns said regulators will be “under siege” trying to deal with the variety of businesses and technologies.
“So we wanted to get in early and work with them,” he said.
In his talk on why electric flight is the future, entrepreneur Paul Touw noted: “The FAA and governing bodies don’t really know how to deal with and how to certify these aircraft so it’s important to get smaller aircraft through that system and figure out what’s important in electric aviation to be able to certify these aircraft into a larger transport system.”
Jonathan Carrier, VP, Corporate Development at flying car company AeroMobil, noted, too, that “baby steps” are key for these new types of aircraft.
“Our firm belief is that you should work within the existing regulations today – because it’s proven,” he said. “The regulators understand it and you produce something that people can use.”
He said AeroMobil’s strategy is to develop an aircraft that can get to market under EASA’s existing CS23 rules.
From there, “Understand the customer and start to evolve.” This means AeroMobil will be a STOL (short take-off and landing) aircraft for now, although: “That doesn’t mean we are not working on VTOL.”
This iterative approach also means the ability to use existing infrastructure, which is another key concern with new forms of air mobility.
“You never go from zero to hero – ultimately, you have to be able to establish a market. The best way to do that is to tackle an existing market first,” said Carrier.
Omer Bar-Yohay, CEO and co-founder of Eviation, which is developing the all-electric Alice regional aircraft, said: “We want something cheap that people will want to climb on as passengers. We want to give regional operators an answer to their existing set-up at a cheaper cost per flight hours. We are not trying to build the infrastructure.”
This means the company will need to use existing airports.
Bar-Yohay added: “I think the infrastructure question [is one] we will start seeing when we really push the boundaries of operation. If you really are going to see [tens of thousands of] flights into LA every morning, like Uber envisions, that’s an infrastructure problem. If you’re going to sell 600 of those as early as possible…no infrastructure issues there.”
Powering the future
The industry talks about 500 watt-hours per kilogram as the magic figure that battery technology has to reach before all-electric propulsion really becomes viable.
However, Bar-Yohay said: “In many cases, the question is not what’s your battery energy density but what’s the mission for your flight?
“I can’t fly at 40,000 feet, Mach 0.9 and build the all-electronic 787 just yet because of energy density. That’s true, but I’m not trying to.”
He noted in many cases potential clients only want to use the aircraft for distances of 20-70 miles, adding: “The question is: are you trying to build a tech demonstrator that will be an amazing thing to show or are you trying to build a product that can be manufactured and certified and then sold to make money?”
A softly, softly approach will only get you so far, though.
In some areas, much more rapid action and long-term thinking is needed right now. Michael Liebreich of Liebreich Associates, highlighted issues around power supply at airports.
He said big airports typically have about 50 megawatts of power supply, regional airports may have 15 megawatts and a local airport 5 megawatts.
He gave the example of an electric light aircraft that may want to refuel and take off again within 15 minutes, using half a megawatt of power. Operations at an airport like Heathrow might require up to 25 of these vehicles to be charged simultaneously.
“If you haven’t thought about how we’re going to charge all these vehicles, you better start thinking about it now because you could be plugging it into something that’s not going to be able to deliver the juice fast enough,” he said. “The electrical system, which is developing very rapidly into this digital clean energy system, can’t cope with all the things that you spend all your time talking about.”
The art of reinvention
While start-ups are flooding in to deliver and capitalise on aviation’s latest wave of innovation, established companies must evolve too if they want to stay relevant.
Brian Schettler is Managing Director at Boeing HorizonX, Boeing’s innovation investment arm, which is separate from the rest of the business and provides “a safe place to think about what the future could be”.
Schettler said: “Disruption is where we start – we think about where the cracks are in the foundation and where the opportunities are in the future.”
Boeing has invested in a number of start-ups and companies, with Schettler saying that in today’s environment, “No single company can do this [alone].”
He added that Boeing offers a “no kidding partnership”. “We believe that a partnership is greater than the sum of the parts. We’re going to bring the best of 102-year-old company to these investments and help nourish the innovation and agility,” he said.
Giulio Zamboni, Head of Future Aircraft Propositions, Rolls-Royce, described how his company is thinking about innovation in different ways – derivative innovation, platform innovation and breakthrough innovation – in order to sweat existing assets and build a bridge to the future.
“Innovation is not just about inventing,” he said, “It’s about being able to drive profits out of that.”
In practice, this means trying to improve the core product – gas turbine engines (derivative innovation), advancing the integration of the powerplant and the wing (platform innovation) and pushing towards electrification (breakthrough innovation).
All these strands must work together, not in silos, as part of the “synergised” portfolio of the company, Zamboni said.
Rolls-Royce’s thinking is that personal mobility aircraft will initially be hybrid, then electric; regional will be mainly hybrid and in the narrow-body and wide-body market, there is the opportunity to go increasingly electric.
“That is the reason why we are investing heavily in gas turbines, standard core architecture but also electrification,” Zamboni explained, adding that electrification will provide a greater ability to distribute and control power in different ways.
Specific initiatives include the single-passenger Accel, which Rolls-Royce says will be the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft. Rolls-Royce is also working on a hybrid eVTOL concept for 4-5 passengers. The initial concept vehicle uses gas turbine technology to generate electricity to power six electric propulsors specially designed to minimise noise emissions. It also has a battery for energy storage.
Both will demonstrate by 2020, Zamboni said.
We don’t often talk about feelings in aviation but aside from the cold, hard worlds of infrastructure, regulation and technology, a shift in air mobility will require winning the hearts and minds of people on the ground. This will also require an evolutionary approach, experts said.
Lawrence Blakeley of Vertical Aerospace, said that the introduction of autonomous cargo and even autonomous cars will be important in helping people become more familiar and comfortable with new technologies.
The question on everyone’s lips is always: when?
Omer Bar-Yohay, Eviation, and Olaf Otto, Siemens, agreed that by 2035 a 50-seater fully electric aircraft will be able to take fare-paying passengers from London to Paris.
HorizonX’s Schettler backed the view of Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, who has previously said autonomous air vehicles could go into commercial operation within five years, starting with cargo.
Many of the innovations discussed at Revolutuon.Aero are driven by shifts in society as well as technological advances – the need to cut congestion and tackle the challenges of urbanisation, a growing demand for convenience and sustainability, etc.
Paul Touw noted that the current scenario means people tend to live as close as possible to their place of work – understandably, they typically don’t want to commute more than an hour. He said electric aircraft could enable people to live 50 or 75 miles away and still get to work in 15 minutes.
“And that changes the environment in major metropolitan areas which are highly polluted. That would be a major impact on society,” he said, noting that electric mobility will be greener and emit fewer pollutants.”
The real revolution could be much bigger, though. We are now seeing children boycotting school and staging protests about inaction on climate change. While new modes and technologies could nudge the needle on some of these issues, future generations may demand a no-tech way to really effect the change they want to see: less travel.