The aeronautical industry is facing a future marked by the development of disruptive aircraft to fulfill the objectives of reducing polluting emissions, maintaining the levels of operability, and controlling costs. To meet these challenges, research today is focusing on technological applications in the design and manufacture of aircraft, implementation of new materials, digitization, the development of generation technologies, and energy storage and management, in addition to their integration into the structure.
In a pre-COVID world, the outlook for the commercial aviation market for the coming years was, according to the latest Airbus Global Market Forecast, a 4.3% annual increase in air traffic for the 2019-2038 period, from the nearly 23,000 units of today to 47,680, of which 39,210 would be new. Air freight traffic would also grow by 3.6% per year through 2038, doubling the current levels, which would require some 2,800 cargo planes, compared to the 1,800 today. All of that would require upgrading the fleets with latest-generation aircraft, made possible by the technological advances that make it possible to move closer to the zero emissions goal through more efficient propulsion systems and lighter, electric planes.
With the onset of the pandemic, these estimates have changed significantly, as highlighted in the report “COVID-19. Outlook for air travel in the next 5 years”, from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Air travel will recover more slowly than the rest of the economy, and it will not return to 2019 international traffic levels until 2023. Around 2025, a 10% reduction is expected in the growth forecast, which could lead to modifications in aircraft regeneration projects.
Aeronautical development today is focused on three lines, according to Vicente Gómez, secretary general for the Spanish Aerospace Technology Platform (PAE):
– Environmental efficiency: drastic reduction of emissions (aviation is currently responsible for 2% of all CO2 emissions). Work is underway to cut net carbon emissions in aviation by half of the 2005 levels by 2050.
– Energy efficiency: reduced consumption as the key factor in aircraft operating costs.
– Price competitiveness without sacrificing safety: so aviation can continue to be the safest mode of transportation.
“There are many lines of work underway to meet these objectives, and one of them is to design and manufacture more aerodynamically efficient airplanes, reducing aerodynamic resistance to increase energy efficiency,” said Gómez. Among the ideas under research and development to achieve that goal, he highlighted technologies used for route optimization or the technology aimed at creating a laminar aerodynamic flow around an aircraft. “There are several projects in Europe that are progressing in that direction, and there are even some that are conducting flight tests, such as the Airbus project in which they have replaced the external sections of a commercial aircraft wing with new ones capable of reducing aerodynamic resistance by 50%, with a 5% reduction in CO2. Spanish industry has been a significant participant in the project—the new laminated wing structure was designed and manufactured in Spain by Aernnova.”
To create airplanes that are more aerodynamically efficient, research is also focused on the materials used. In that line, one of the main advancements in recent years has been carbon fiber reinforced plastic, which is a clear example of high-tech development in the aerospace sector that has been transferred to other sectors. “Spain has been a global leader in this development,” highlighted Gómez, who believes the current challenge is to decrease manufacturing costs for the carbon-fiber parts and equip the structures manufactured with these materials with features that go beyond simply the structural aspects. This is what is known as multifunctionality (sensorization, dampening, damage tolerance, electromagnetic properties, corrosion, and improved adherence or fatigue behavior). “One example would be integrating wiring into the structures or adjusting the thermal or electrical properties of the structure’s components to improve certain properties such as conductivity. In that integration, nanotechnology plays a significant role. In addition, technologies are being developed to increase the production rate and decrease wasted materials,” he asserted.
In any case, there are currently several technological solutions under development in the aeronautics industry, ranging from those that seek to drastically change aircraft configuration and propulsion systems (electrical or hybrid propulsion systems or non-polluting fuels such as hydrogen) to those that introduce more gradual changes seeking to reduce cumulative emissions to meet decarbonization objectives (increasing turbine efficiency to decrease consumption or decreasing aircraft weight in all their parts) or the use of sustainable fuels. “In addition to this trend towards reducing emissions, the aeronautics industry is firmly involved in increasing competitiveness throughout the aircraft life cycle without compromising safety,” underlined Vicente Gómez, who believes that digitization in the design of all processes and services is a key part in achieving that objective.
Aviation is the safest form of transportation that exists today, and to ensure it remains that way in the future, aircraft design must continue to develop both in terms of operational safety (airplanes must not fail operationally) and physical safety (air transportation must be able to face any “attack” against the safety of the flight and its users). The PAE has proposed a wide variety of lines of action, from human-machine interaction studies for shared decision-making to cybersecurity throughout the aviation value chain—increasingly digitized aircraft developments, flight control, or air traffic control—including the use of Big Data to monitor behaviors at airports and in airplanes to detect possible threats. “In the future, aeronautical technology will be based primarily on sustainability, profitability, versatility, service reinforcement, and digitization. It will require advanced means of production that can manage production rates as have never been seen before,” the expert predicted.
That is why most international projects today are adhering to clear lines of research:
• To develop flight autonomy and optimize routes: from reducing the pilot load, operating with just one pilot, to remotely piloted vehicles.
• Focusing on decarbonization, from electric aircraft to hybrid or zero-emission fuels.
• Using advanced materials to reduce weight and improve features, while also focusing on production processes such as 3D printing or additive manufacturing.
• Digitizing design, manufacturing, and services.
The trend of research places the aircraft as key elements in future mobility, with a tendency towards intermodality. As a result, depending on the circumstances, different modes of transportation will be combined to achieve more efficient results in terms of cost and environmental impact. “It is highly possible in that sense that we will see aircraft conducting missions in which they had played a minor role until now, such as urban air transportation where there are several international projects developing manned and unmanned “air taxis,” which are cost-competitive compared to ground-based options and have zero emissions (most of the projects use electric propulsion),” the PAE secretary general explained.
However, aeronautics has been a globalized and internationalized industry for years now, which encourages development of all these investments and research. “The significant developments in aeronautics require international collaboration to be successful,” Gómez asserted.
That cooperation is essential in a market with exponential growth—air traffic doubles approximately every 15 years—and a high level of competition, “that makes it necessary to be more efficient, seeking excellence at a global level, and building collaboration with those offering the most innovative solutions, both in incremental and disruptive innovation.”
At the European level, “there is a clear public-private commitment to ensuring that the European aeronautical industry remains a global leader, and that it does so in line with the strictest environmental requirements.” An example of that are the EU CleanSky programs, for increasingly efficient aircraft manufacturing, and SESAR, for the development of future air traffic control with both manned and unmanned vehicles integrated in the same air space.
All these international efforts are complemented with domestic development initiatives so that the aeronautical value chain can compete under better conditions in the projects. “These programs require resolute public-private collaboration regarding the established technological objectives,” the expert indicated. However, the magnitude of the objective requires businesses, governments, universities, and technology centers around the world to work together on those developments, both in terms of economic viability and resource availability and knowledge transfer, in order to bring about more technologically advanced and efficient aviation.
Future improvements expected in energy efficiency
(compared to previous aircraft and engines in the same category)
Article contributor:Vicente José Gómez Molinero is a senior aeronautical engineer from the Polytechnic University of Madrid. He began his career at Construcciones Aeronáuticas S.A. (CASA), which was integrated into the European Aeronautic Defense and Space (EADS), and then worked at Astrium, followed by Airbus Defense and Space.
For nearly 40 years, he has worked primarily in technical positions, as well as technology and R&D management positions. He was the technical and quality director and head of R&D+i at Airbus Defense and Space in Spain.
Since 2016, he has held the position of secretary general of the Spanish Aerospace Technology Platform (PAE), which represents some 80 sector entities and has established itself as the Spanish benchmark for aerospace R&D+i.