On 7th March 2018, the ATI and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) hosted a seminar on the electrification of aviation.
Senior representatives from the aerospace and automotive industries joined Government and academic attendees to share their views on the disruptive potential of electrification. The discussion was wide-ranging and there was a broad consensus on the top-level themes that UK aerospace needs to consider.
The case for electrification is strong. Electric aircraft could provide a number of important benefits and have the potential to solve a range of problems that the aerospace industry is working hard to tackle.
All-electric aircraft could revolutionise short-range air transport, creating new markets for urban air transport and short-range regional services. They would have far fewer parts making them cheaper to design, manufacture and maintain. Being electrically powered, they could be charged entirely from renewable electricity, minimising impact on the global climate. Their lower overall carbon, NOx and particulate emissions and potentially low noise would enable operation in and around urban areas. In some markets, it could mean that the development of new rail infrastructure is displaced by aviation.
Similarly, hybrid-electric aircraft could transform medium- and long-range commercial aviation, bringing step-change improvements in fuel efficiency, environmental impact and noise to achieve future sustainability targets while allowing continued expansion of air travel.
These future electric aircraft will integrate data, embed artificial intelligence, and operate with greater degrees of autonomy – and importantly their size and shape will be reinvented too to capitalise on the benefits of electrification.
Aerospace is about to see the third big shake-up in its history. What is meant by “aerospace” is already starting to blur, as airframe manufacturers are now invited to address the Geneva Motor Show.
Red-faced over green issues? The environmental driver for electrification is particularly strong. The sector’s environmental challenge is growing. As a proportion of CO2 emissions from transport, aviation is relatively low. But as other transport systems significantly improve their emissions, aviation will come under more scrutiny.
Many aircraft are flying much less than they were designed for, particularly over short distances, and changing these aircraft to electric or hybrid-electric could make a significant difference to CO2 emissions.
Mighty A380s from little drones grow. Or at least, when it comes to electrification, we can expect to see something like that.
Full electrification is likely to be seen first in urban mobility aircraft; there are prototypes today that are already carrying one or two people.
We are then likely to see it utilised by intercity/regional aircraft; within seven to ten years for short-range hybrid-electric aircraft. Hybrid turboprops could be a market game changer in this timeframe.
Within 15 years, we could see short-range all-electric aircraft and medium-range hybrid-electric single crew aircraft. And by the 2040s a mix of electric, hybrid-electric and more-electric aircraft systems. Aircraft in the future will look very different, sound very different and operate differently.
While it is true that the first aircraft types to be electric will be small and short-range, we are on a journey that someday will deliver a much more electric long-range widebody aircraft. The sector as a whole needs to be bold, collaborative and ambitious to shape and deliver these innovative aircraft.
And these timescales are not fixed: the interest in electrification is intense and developments could happen far sooner than many predict.
The market expects. Our current markets are already demanding electric aircraft. Airlines understand the benefits, and they’re committing to an electric future. Today, customers are asking to take electrical energy off their aircraft engines. Do we need to involve airlines in this discussion?
Automotive has been the driving force. What can aerospace learn from the automotive sector? It is automotive that has revolutionised power electronics. Many of the sector’s manufacturers have already set a date by which all cars sold will be electric.
For automotive, the steps in the argument have fallen into place: the UK has the right technology; the industry is a big employer in the UK and so the Government is listening; and the goals are all achievable, backed by accurate modelling.
Automotive has a clear and well-structured vision that can be shared by multiple Government departments, enabling them to work together to provide effective support.
The challenge for aerospace is the difference in lifecycles. For automotive, the threats are short-term and pressing. For aerospace the impact is long-term… but equally irreversible.
Keep it simple. UK aerospace needs to present a clear picture of the sector view. It needs a strategy that strikes a balance between the realistic and the inspirational. The big picture may be complicated, but we must create a simple vision that is focused on the top messages. The ATI and EPSRC are working across the sector to bring cohesion to the requirements and articulate a UK vision.
Flying is believing. There is no more effective way of communicating the art of the possible than to develop a major demonstrator programme. As well as a demonstrator the UK will need (access to) appropriate testing facilities and simulator platforms. But we must build things that fly if we want to inspire.
As the skies become populated with new technologies and increased levels of autonomy, it is imperative to work hand-in-hand with the regulatory bodies and the broader aviation community. Electrification will bring airlines, manufacturers, infrastructure and regulators together like never before.
Global competition is fierce. Every country wants to be the birthplace of the first electric aircraft; every aerospace industry wants to be the pioneer of electrification.
And everyone is looking at the market stats: passenger numbers growing at 4.8% per year; regional air traffic growing even faster. Which aerospace industry wouldn’t want a part of that?
Primes and OEMs are being welcomed by countries with open arms and investments ready to go. The UK may be the 2nd largest aerospace industry but, for companies choosing where in the world to locate their R&D into electrification, it’s a flyer’s market.
The electric aircraft is coming. If the technology is not developed in the UK, it will be developed elsewhere.
We are not alone. Aerospace is a global industry that is well practised in collaborating across borders. The development of novel electric aircraft is no exception. The UK should look to international partnerships; we will not be able to do this on our own.
Coordination across the research infrastructure. The research base in the UK is world-class, spanning the length and breadth of the country. But like the integrated and connected systems of an aircraft, these centres now need to integrate their research to meet challenges in technology developments and aircraft design. More collaboration by academics across electrification research themes will offer better support for industry, from OEMs to start-ups. New initiatives, such as the Future Propulsion Research Centre, are already running across several Universities.
A very particular set of skills. Electrical engineers will be needed, and lots of them – just as they are in very many sectors, leading to severe skills shortages. The challenge for UK aerospace is to help Government to see the holistic view: the looming skills crisis and the need for action across the board, from school children to PhDs and the diversity agenda.
UK aerospace can take the lead on providing a compelling proposition. Tell the story well, and be ambitious enough, and the Grand Challenge of electrification will attract the next-generation of electrical engineers.
If our minds can conceive it, and our hearts can believe it, then we can achieve it. The UK is a leader in conventional aircraft; we know what it takes to build an aircraft. It was the UK that led the Second Revolution in aerospace: the jet age. We are now about to see the Third Revolution: the electric age. As with the jet engine, the UK needs to be at the vanguard of this development if it is to maintain a strong and world-leading aerospace industry.
What next? There is work to be done on articulating the UK aerospace vision of electrification: to seek support from UK funding mechanisms; to ensure that UK Research and Innovation, with its new role in coordinating research in the UK, is well briefed on the sector’s views and ambitions; and to engage with Ministers and ensure it features within the Government’s Industrial Strategy.
The ATI and EPSRC would like to thank the organisations who contributed to the discussion: Advanced Propulsion Centre; Airbus; Bombardier; Cranfield University; Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy; Department for Transport; GKN Aerospace; Innovate UK; Rolls-Royce; University of Newcastle; University of Nottingham; University of Southampton; University of Strathclyde; and Yasa Motors.
Following this discussion, the ATI and EPSRC will continue to engage with the wider community, convene stakeholders, share information, connect with researchers internationally and promote the UK aerospace vision of electric aircraft.