Multiple Options For Aircraft Sustainability

Jon Lawson

How can the aerospace industry tackle climate challenges and become more sustainable? Jeff Hoyle has some answers

The past two years have thrown up a host of new challenges for the aerospace industry – from the pandemic grounding planes and grinding production to a halt, to the increasing number of cyberattacks being targeted at operators, manufacturers, and the wider supply chain.

As the industry looks forward to a post-pandemic world, two key challenges are top of mind: the need to decrease time to market for new aircraft without compromising quality, and the need to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Increasing Build Efficiency

The manufacturing process is changing. As the digital transformation accelerates and high-tech startups disrupt the status quo, aeronautics manufacturers must continue to innovate and modernise to secure business and keep pace. At the same time, they need to adhere to the stringent quality checks and regulations designed to ensure safety for passengers.

The design and manufacture of aircraft is understandably highly regulated, and the certification process is still driven by physical testing to demonstrate compliance. As such, the estimated timeframe for an aeroplane (both civil and military) to be developed and certified has barely changed in 40 years.

However, new solutions powered by new digital tools – such as new simulation methods and use of artificial intelligence (AI) to facilitate simulations – are enabling the number of physical tests to be reduced. Consequently, these innovations are shrinking the time scales and costs associated with the development of new products.

Furthermore, technologies such as 3D printing and virtual twins – an executable virtual model of a physical system or part, which brings in learning and experiences taken from real-world processes to simulate and test performance – are potentially game-changing innovations that will lead the way in the future of aircraft design and manufacture.

However, to fully embrace the mission to build better aircraft in a shorter time, aero manufacturers need to go beyond these techniques. Lessons should be sought from other industries where technology such as AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) are already being used efficiently as part of the engineering process. Development of new materials is already using AI to reduce the number of tests needed, particularly in certification. Yet there is still work to be done in developing AI to safely follow the processes associated with aeroplane development. The final goal is to use AI to perform all the iterative processes and reduce the ‘human touch’ required to check the work the AI is doing – and redirect it if necessary.

As a golden rule to develop this specific AI, we cannot allow for the work to be done in isolation, in a ‘black box’. Engineers will need to be able to follow all the processes to allow traceability of every action and perform the final checking and validation of the analysis or design. This also allows a route to certification.

The rise of these technologies has thrown up another challenge: to convince authorities and regulators that they provide the right approach for the industry and are safe to use.

With the complexity of the aeroplane design process, things will not change overnight and the industry will become far more digitally driven in the next five to 10 years.

As new concepts continue to change due to these agile technology developments, predicting what the exact implications of a faster aircraft design process will be is impossible. But embracing these developments will clearly set manufacturers up for success in the months and years ahead.

Reaching Zero Carbon Emissions

Accelerating time-to-market of high-quality aircraft is not the only challenge facing the aerospace manufacturers. Climate change is a global issue touching every facet of our lives and the industry must face up to its role in this battle. This presents major short- and long-term challenges for the sector. As public understanding – and concerns – surrounding the environmental impact of flying grows every day, it’s up to manufacturers to come up with innovative new solutions that will render air travel sustainable ahead of, and beyond, 2050.

Many options for reducing the carbon emissions of a jet engine are being investigated in response to this. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The first is the electrification of aircraft and use of battery power in some capacity. This is already being explored by the likes of Airbus, which is developing a high-voltage lithium-ion main battery system.

However, batteries are not a magic bullet for the environment. While they reduce emissions, their safe and sustainable disposal continues to pose a challenge and should be taken into consideration when designing electric or hybrid aircraft. Until a viable, scalable solution to this barrier is produced, a vision of fully electric aircraft solving our Net Zero woes is unlikely.

This becomes even more relevant when we consider that new fuels and more sustainable options for fuelling aircraft are being developed all the time.

Aerospace may look to other industries such as automotive for inspiration, with our recent research finding that 84% of European auto leaders agreed that hydrogen will play a part in helping the industry to reduce its carbon emissions.

The industry is more optimistic about the prospect of alternative options powered by hydrogen fuel cells or synthetic fuels. Again, challenges remain: for example, there are prototypes in place for hydrogen fuel cells, and Airbus is also investing in mature fuel cell propulsion systems
for the aviation market.

Complications surrounding storage and accessibility are preventing fast-paced development today. Hydrogen still needs to be extracted from somewhere, which potentially pushes the problem further down the supply chain as this process can be damaging to the environment. What bodes well is the significant investment in the development of technologies and approaches to make hydrogen harvesting more sustainable and efficient, with headway being made all the time.

Overall, there is still a long way to go to enable the creation of aircraft with little or no negative implications for the environment in a short amount of time. However, that is not to say we shouldn’t be excited about the future of aerospace, and as technologies develop and startups race to bring new products to market, the future is incredibly bright. By embracing the right methods, tools and environmental solutions, manufacturers can overcome these challenges and ensure efficiency and sustainability for future success.

Jeff Hoyle is executive vice president global aerospace & defence at Expleo