Reach for the sky: innovation in aviation

The aviation industry is undergoing change, and Future Flight Challenge has been created to facilitate innovation. Frankie Youd speaks to Simon Masters, Innovate UK deputy director, to find out more about the challenge ahead, as well as what projects the programme is currently working on. 

Image: copyright

The next generation of aviation is here and now. From upcoming electric aircraft to retrofitting new hybrid engines, new technology will soon be taking to the skies and a new initiative is here to help. 

With recent technologies such as sustainable fuel, retrofitting engines, and new aircraft design continuing to develop, the aviation industry is entering a new era. These new technologies are transforming the aviation space, connecting people, providing services, and delivering goods. From drones to electric regional aircraft, the sector is evolving every day. 

To support the development of these technologies, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has created Future Flight Challenge, a programme investing in innovative projects that aim to deliver the aviation systems of the future.  

The challenge has set out a roadmap – the Future Flight Vision & Roadmap – to provide stakeholders across the aviation industry with direction and knowledge on the future of the sector. 

Simon Masters, Innovate UK deputy director

Frankie Youd: Could you provide some background on Future Flight Challenge? 

Simon Masters: Future Flight Challenge is delivered by UKRI. It’s a four-year programme, it runs through until March 2024. We advertise as a £300m ($394.4m) programme, which is a combination of government funding and match funding from industry, where they put their own money in as well.  

It’s to look at what some people call the third revolution of aviation, new forms of transport. Things like drones, advanced air mobility, and new forms of propulsion systems. Whether that’s electric or hydrogen, hybrid, or some mixture of those. It’s really focusing on those new forms of aviation, rather than some of the other government programmes that are looking specifically at existing aircraft. 

One of the things that we’re really keen to do is to make sure that the programme’s not just about these new forms of aircraft; it’s actually part of a wider system that they will operate in. So, looking at things like infrastructure, regulation, and energy supplies; if they are not using traditional aviation fuel, what will power them in? Energy, electricity, or hydrogen, where will that come from? How do you get it to the airport or where they are operating from?  

What we didn’t want to do is fund a lot of new technologies that wouldn’t have had an obvious route into commercial service because the whole system hadn’t been considered. 

Could you explain the three key themes identified by the roadmap? 

Firstly, Infrastructure. We’ve further defined that as physical, digital, and energy infrastructure, as well as the airspace side of it in a more three-dimensional way. We’re really looking at the set of that wider system that these vehicles will have to operate in. You need to get most of those right and some of these vehicles will actually challenge the existing UK infrastructure that we have. 

We’re looking at supporting the introduction of new vehicles that don’t necessarily slot into existing airports or existing ways of operating that easily, so we need to really consider what needs to change in those areas as well.  

The second one is about the vehicles and the vehicle capabilities. Whether that’s new forms of vehicles, whether it’s looking at propulsion systems and ways of retrofitting existing aircraft to be to be greener.

Some of the projects we’re working with are looking at hybrid electric sort of retrofits to existing aircraft, recognising that these aircrafts to have a life of many hours left in them, but this way they could be made more cleaner and greener in terms of how they operate.  

The third one is based around the regulatory side and the knowledge-based side of it. Looking at regulation, we’re working very closely with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) as part of this programme to make sure that, wherever possible, the regulations intersect with the technology.

The other side of regulations is standards, so that involves working with British Standards Institute to look at what standards you need to have.  

What are some of the projects which have already received investment? 

We currently have 48 research projects that were launched a year to 18 months ago for a total of about £33m, covering all the sorts of areas I described.  

They’re all in various stages of completion, some are finishing around now, some of them around summer, some probably towards the end of this year. They all are all actually getting to the interesting part when they start to be able to demonstrate what all their hard work is going to deliver. 

There’s one called 2Zero, which is looking at a hybrid electric aircraft. It started with a small aircraft, it’s a of six-seater Turboprop aircraft with two engines, which are in line rather than one under each wing. That makes it easier because what they’ve done is they’ve left one engine alone and made the other one electric as a demonstration.  

It’s an American company that sees a huge retrofit market for this. It  also has part of its operations based in the UK; UK employees are working on this, along with the likes of Rolls Royce.  

2Zero has brought this aircraft over from the US to demonstrate flying, to build evidence as to how the aircraft performs on actual routes, and also to look at the ground infrastructure. So, how do you operate on the ground, how do you maintain that, and how do you charge it? 

This project has a base around Exeter Airport, and they were doing flights between Exeter and Newquay. They were doing a number of flights per day just to prove what it would look like if it was carrying passengers, how long it takes to charge, and if the battery utilisation lasts as long as it’s meant to. This gave them the opportunity to really build that knowledge base.

What do you think the future holds for the aviation sector? 

I think sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) certainly for larger aircraft [will come] first. It’s important that SAFs come into momentum more and become more widely adopted. I think that’s the right solution for aircraft with over 100 seats. The smaller aircraft that we’re working with are actually very much a use-case for hydrogen or fuel cells, or electric is a also a viable solution for those smaller vehicles, and definitely for drones.  

There are questions to be answered about the energy side, where this electricity comes from, where the hydrogen comes from, and how airports adapt to that, because there isn’t really an appetite for huge new infrastructure projects – they don’t want new airports just to service these new aircrafts.  

We are going to have to find a way of integrating these new forms of fuel, how they refuel and recharge aircraft. 

I think it would be really interesting to see whether we can use these new types of aircraft to open up some of the more rural areas across the UK that perhaps rely on a less regular service. Or even the way the mail is delivered. That’ll be quite interesting to see which technology kind of drives that movement forward or not.

Do you think that governments should be pushing for new development, or should this be a decision made by the industry? 

I think programmes such as Future Flight are assumed to be successful in bringing people together. It’s not just the funding, although obviously, we do provide funding to support these research and development projects.  

I think part of it is actually having a neutral presence which people can coalesce around and come and say: “I’ve seen people talk about this, but I don’t know what it is.” Doing it on behalf of the government allows you to be neutral, so any suspicions that organisations may have – they don’t have to worry about them, because we are doing it on behalf of the government so we can encourage those kinds of conversations.   

The regulatory side, obviously, is paramount in aviation. There’s always that underlying sense that everything has to be safe and adding new types of vehicles into the UK, into the UK airspace, has to maintain those levels of safety.  

That obviously presents a challenge, and regulators have a really tough job. We work closely with the CAA. Clearly, it has safety in mind, but it also doesn’t want to be seen as a barrier to innovation. We have to encouraged close working relationships between our research and development projects and the CAA.  

We really try to encourage companies to talk to the CAA not as a regulator, but as a trusted expert.