2020s: balancing demand for flight with the climate challenge
As 2019 ends and step in to a new decade, Alan Peaford looks back on the decade gone and ponders the future of the industry
It is only when you reflect on the changes over a fixed period of time that you get to fully appreciate how much aerospace has developed. Looking over my own musings from a decade ago, there were many words spent on the development of the world’s largest the airliner – the Airbus A380.
As airports were facing capacity issues, the introduction of the “superjumbo” looked like a perfect solution. Just three years since its entry into service the A380 was winning the hearts of passengers as the new decade began. Ten years on, production has been halted. In February 2019 Airbus announced the end of the line for the type.
Economics around fuel costs were one of the drivers of this decision dating back to 2010 when Arab Spring saw crude oil prices increase to over $100, then pushing to close to $120 bringing a global slowdown that affected manufacturing as well as aviation operations.
MAX remains grounded
2019 will also be remembered as the year of the MAX. Boeing’s updated variant of the best-selling 737 single aisle aircraft had a second fatal accident in less than six months.
At the time of writing the aircraft remains grounded worldwide, nine months after the tragedy while the scandal of the certification and the decision-making surrounding faults in the systems remain under scrutiny.
It is perhaps unthinkable that the MAX – arguably the fastest selling commercial passenger aircraft in history - will remain on the ground and as we look into 2020 it will surely come back with a bang as the delayed deliveries will lead to a delivery spike for Boeing and the engine maker, CFM. But the decision to suspend production from January is an indication that it may not happen soon.
The impact on the regulator the FAA has also been great and as a result the ramifications could be felt by manufacturers across the world. Of course the supply chain will be affected but it is essential for public confidence and safety that the industry maintains its position as a safe and trusted sector.
Narrowbodies lead the way in carbon reduction
The past decade has also seen the introduction to service for aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Airbus A350XWB and the development of the new family of Boeing 777 aircraft. The new-engined (imaginatively called the ‘new engine option’ or Neo for the Airbus family) narrowbodies have also led to the aviation industry making huge steps towards its reduction in carbon emissions.
This will continue to be a major issue for the industry across the board whether it be airlines, airports or manufacturers. Again looking back over the past decade it was interesting to note that it was 2010 when the Solar Impulse – which was to become the first solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the earth during the decade – was in its early stage of testing and made and its first night flight.
The reality as we enter this next decade is that there is a contradiction between what people say and their unwillingness to stop flying
Since then, there had been a host of new proposals for all-electric aircraft and for a reduction in carbon fuels. The 2050 goal for zero climate impact is achievable but there is pressure on airlines to do it faster.
Airlines are an easy target for the ire of activist environmentalists and the development of flight-shaming campaign. The reality as we enter this next decade is that there is a contradiction between what people say and their unwillingness to stop flying.
Aviation is the most efficient mode of transport for journeys over 1,000 miles, but the airlines know they can’t afford to do nothing and development and testing of alternative fuels will increase.
Eco-fuels will become the norm
British Airways has developed a joint venture with Velocys to create aviation fuel from household waste which should be operational by 2024. Similar innovative solutions will come over the next few years and by the end of the decade eco-fuels will be the norm.
Electric motors and batteries are unlikely to be ready to power long-haul airliners by the end of this next decade. As Emirates president Tim Clark says, you would need an aircraft the size of a 747 just to carry the battery to keep an airliner going. But it will be making an impact for regional travel – and of course for the world of personal transport and unmanned air vehicles.While still on fuel, there will be excitement to come about hydrogen. Flying test articles are already being prepared and could be a useful alternative.
VTOL will become the dominant innovator
But it will be the world of urban air mobility (UAM) with its vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) air taxis and short-range hybrid regional aircraft that will be dominating the transport innovation scene.
Already, the eponymous Volocopter has successfully flown in Stuttgart and Singapore and has has received a Design Organisation Approval (DOA) from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). This is basically a recognition by the EU that the processes Volocopter has in place in developing and building its aircraft are of a high enough standard that it can expedite the process of deploying its eVTOLs for commercial use.
Volocopter is moving forward with its to produce a cargo version of its vehicle and is setting up a partnership with John Deere for use in agriculture. There are more than 150 projects in progress around the world for potential commercial programmes. Not all of them will make it through lack of funding and the natural barriers that pop up when face to face with aviation regulation.
There is no doubt that collaboration between automotive and aerospace will play a big part over the next decade
But with entities like Porche, Aston Martin and BMW joining companies like Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce there is no doubt that collaboration between automotive and aerospace will play a big part over the next decade, and by 2030 it will be the norm to get to the airport from your home area by air taxi; that regional cities will be better connected thanks to electric flight – it is already happening with Lilium’s tilt wing - and importantly access to remote rural areas in developing countries will be opened for goods and medical supplies.
Your autonomous Uber-like VTOL taxi arrives
Major cities – Dubai probably the first but Dallas, Singapore, LA will be up there – they will have an Uber-like air taxi service – probably autonomously operated by the end of the decade.
The challenge of integration of air space between manned and unmanned aircraft will be solved during the decade with a complete radical overhaul of the Air Traffic Management systems thanks to more artificial intelligence. This, linked to blockchain, will ensure secure systems and improved handover between regions.
High speed digitalisation of aerospace continues
The digitalisation of aerospace will continue at a pace with increased robotics and augmented reality to aid problem solving and training. Access through airports with improved biometric recognition and AI applied to scanning will see faster and smoother access, with shared data between nations making regular air travel easier.
One thing for sure, when I write this column in ten years’ time, with my trusty cobot by my side, I will be talking about the biggest series of revolutionary changes to flight and its associated industries, since the success of the Wright Brothers.
Fasten your seatbelts!