The aeronautics industry is notoriously polluting and has to deal with environmental issues while reducing costs as much as possible. The impact of the pandemic has accelerated the ecological transition in commercial aviation and the industry is in recovery phase and continues to develop innovative projects in materials and propulsion systems. How can we move towards a sustainable and efficient commercial aviation?
Aerospace is a strategic economic sector. It employs 2.6 million people in Europe and contributes $193 billion to the European Union’s gross domestic product (GDP). The aerospace industry is considered one of the most polluting sectors. The Covid-19 pandemic has plunged the sector into a historic crisis, slowing down the increase in air pollution, and the aviation sector seems to have used this crisis as an opportunity to adopt a resolutely sustainable strategy, with the financial help of the States. For example, the financial support of the France 2030 plan aims to develop a low-carbon aircraft and new engine projects.
At Airbus, the group had already taken a step forward with more than half of the A350’s structure made of composite materials, and engines that consume less fuel. Thanks to computer-assisted piloting, Airbus is gradually moving towards the “single pilot operation” aircraft, which will meet the shortage of airline pilots, particularly for freight transport. Where the use of composite materials allows for lighter structures and lower costs, the use of sustainable fuels will allow for a low-carbon aviation that meets environmental challenges. Airbus is conducting numerous projects to reduce the carbon footprint of aircraft, with lighter materials, wing shapes that improve aircraft lift and new trajectory optimisation algorithms. Other research is being carried out on biofuels and the use of electrical energy. New production methods could emerge with the arrival of 3D printing technologies, cyber-physical systems and automation. One of Airbus’ major projects for the next few years is the development of three types of hydrogen-powered aircraft and the testing of a hydrogen propulsion system on an A380.
Sustainable commercial aviation must first develop alternative means of propulsion, whether in terms of fuel or technology used, while reducing costs and preserving aircraft performance as much as possible.
One example of this is the German company Lilium, which has developed the first fully electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (“eVTOL”). The company announced in April 2022 the start of the next phase of flight tests in Spain with its 5th generation technology demonstrator, Phoenix 2. In the coming months, Lilium plans to expand the flight envelope with a full transition and high-speed flight. Daniel Wiegand, co-founder and CEO of Lilium, said: “We are delighted to have launched our next phase of flight testing in Spain. This step brings us one step closer to our goal of creating a sustainable and accessible mode of high-speed, low-noise regional air mobility”.
In the production of aeronautical parts, the Swedish company SKF Aerospace has combined composites and automation, investing €2.5 million to automate part of its production of composite connecting rods for the Airbus A350. This investment will result in a weight saving of between 10 and 20% and a gain in industrial competitiveness. It is precisely the A350F (the cargo version of the Airbus A350) that should be the cargo aircraft with the best environmental performance in the future. The head of Airbus International, Christian Scherer, also said: “Thanks to its composite structure and its latest generation engines, it will provide unbeatable efficiency in terms of fuel consumption, economy and CO2 emissions, supporting the group’s long-term sustainable growth. Airbus hopes to catch up with the cargo market and compete with the Boeing 777.