The Future of Aviation Technologies, Rocket Engines and Sustainable Aviation
With recent news that the iconic Jumbo Jet will be retiring, and that an era of ‘pilotless planes’ may be on the horizon, the future of aviation is a topic that’s got people talking. If we consider the developments in aviation that have taken place over the last century, what the next century might hold could be beyond even our wildest imaginations. Air Charter Service speak to Simone Paternostro, Aerospace Researcher at the University of Nottingham, about the future of aviation technology. Read on to find out how the rocket engine and suborbital flights could revolutionize international air travel, how ‘flying cars’ are being tested by Airbus, and how solar-powered and electric airplanes could pave the way for a greener future of aviation.
Interview with Space Engineer Simone Paternostro from the University of Nottingham
Jane: Interviewer (Air Charter Service Representative)
Simone: Interviewee (Aerospace Researcher & Academic at the University of Nottingham)
J: Hi Simone, we'd love to hear a little more about you, your role at the University and the area you're specialising in.
S: After doing my Master’s Degree at La Sapienza University in Rome, I went on to specialise in space flight dynamics, mission analysis and navigation systems, these are my main areas.M
J: And how long have you been studying in this area?
S: Quite a long time. I started in 2005, did a Bachelor’s degree and two Master's degrees at La Sapienza University of Rome. The Bachelor’s was in aerospace engineering, the first Master’s in space engineering and the second in space transportation systems. I’ve spent three years at the University of Nottingham, so it’s now been more than 12 years that I’ve been studying in this field.
J: Could you tell us a fun fact about yourself, such as a favourite movie or song?
S: As a space enthusiast, it won’t surprise you that one of my favourite movies is Apollo 13. It shows how difficult space missions are, as the environment is so harsh and you have to survive somehow.
J: In our preliminary research, we found that there has been a lot said recently about avionics (aviation electronics), in regards to the future of aviation. In your opinion, will electronics play a pivotal part in the future of aviation?
S: Electronics already play a very important role in aviation and will certainly continue to do so in the future. At present, research centres and companies are trying to improve different features of the electronics, such as efficiency, effectiveness, power and mobility – they are crucial elements. These improvements may lead to further improvements in performance. Commercial flights have an electronic component in their avionics, so that includes navigation, communication, monitoring, flight control, collision and avoidance systems as well as the black box. There are new developments on the horizon.
Nottingham University, Aerospace Technologies
For example, at the University of Nottingham, I am involved in the Innovate Project. INNOVATE stands for the Integration of Novel Aerospace Technologies. It’s a European funded Marie Curie doctoral program and arose from the need for an integrated approach to the development and exploitation of technology within the aerospace sector. The main objective of this research is to promote mainstream research. More importantly, it also supports the development and demonstration of these technologies. In other words, we’re aiming to prove that the technology can be integrated and improved upon.
More on project INNOVATE
This project involves 13 researchers and PhD students from all over the world. Each one of us focuses on a specific system concept connected with innovation in the field, such as propulsion, airframe, ground operations and navigation.
Nottingham University Associate Project in Progress
One example involves a colleague who is working on active control strategies over aircraft control surfaces that can improve aircraft aerodynamics. This can help to reduce the drag on the aircraft of up to around 25 percent. As a result, the aircraft will fly much more smoothly and this will lead to a reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. This is an example of a new technology that we are developing and testing here at the University of Nottingham and it is an example of another type of electronics that can be included in the future of aviation technologies.
The Future of Aircraft Design
J: Do you expect any ground-breaking changes in aircraft design in the future?
S: Yes, there are a few companies that are working on new concepts. They include NASA, Boeing and Airbus. These are, I would say, the main protagonists in the future of the aviation. The main change in design that has emerged is known as the blended wing body. It’s an integrated design with no clear distinction between wing and the fuselage of the aircraft. This integration has an advantage over conventional aircraft design, because the shape of the fuselage itself helps to generate lift. At the same time, this reduces drag and weight, which means that the new design is more fuel efficient and this reduces CO2 emissions.
Challenges Faced with Future Aircraft Design Changes
The main challenge faced is from a structural perspective, in that blended wing body design aircraft are not easy to build, but aircraft manufacturers are looking into overcoming these issues. The solution may lie in the use of carbon fibre composite materials, which could go into creating the entire structure of the aircraft. Airbus and Boeing for example, are already developing their own models, including the A350 XWB and the 787 respectively. The fuselages will be made out of 50 percent composites. Airbus claims that the A350XWB’s will see 25 percent lower operating costs, fuel burn and CO2 emissions when compared with the previous generation of aircraft.
J: When you refer to structure, are you saying that the entire aircraft could be made with composite materials?
S: Yes, composite materials are much lighter, so this will reduce the total weight of the aircraft. However shaping the composite material is quite a complex process. At present, aircraft manufacturers can do this with some of the components, but not for the entire aircraft.
Jet Engine Developments and Rocket Engines
S: I’m not an expert in jet engines, but I have read articles to shape my understanding of developments in this area. I believe there may be some changes in the future.
Project Skylon and the Scramjet Engine
Actually, I know of one company here in the UK called Reaction Engines, which is working on a new project called Skylon. It uses a combination of different types of engine, involving a rocket, plus a standard jet engine. The engine they’re developing now is known as a scramjet. The difference between a standard jet engine and a scramjet engine is the use of compressors and turbines – scramjets do not have these components and they need to operate at very high speed in order to function. That’s the main issue and it explains why no one has used it before. For this engine to start to work, it needs to reach supersonic speed. If you cannot start the engine, you cannot fly.
Project Skylon Objective
It looks like they are trying to combine these two technologies or types of engines, so the aircraft will start with a standard jet engine and once it reaches a certain altitude and speed, it will switch to the other engine. I believe the Skylon project also has a component that’s close to a rocket engine. The objective of this airplane is to reach higher altitudes, where there is less air in the atmosphere, so we can reach higher speeds, without experiencing issues from the drag point of view. This would mean being able to travel faster and reach distant places in just a few hours. They say in the future it might be possible to have London to Sydney flights in four hours, while at present I think it’s 24, so it would be an enormous advantage.
J: That would be quite impressive, if we lived to witness it
S: Yes, that is like what we had with Concorde, before they retired the aircraft. You were able to fly at supersonic velocity and could travel in a very short time from London to New York. Unfortunately, it was too expensive and so it was retired.
Sustainability and the Future of Aviation
J: Wow, this new project sounds really interesting. Moving onto the issue of sustainability, do you anticipate that more environmentally friendly practices and technology will be incorporated into the future of aviation?
S: There is a lot of concern about CO2 emissions since commercial flights are increasing very fast. They’re now much cheaper than before, so more people are flying. Our reading for CO2 emissions was provided by the aviation authorities and it amounts to 15 per cent of the worldwide emissions – that’s a very large amount. The first step will be to keep these levels steady. According to the aviation authorities, our CO2 emissions could rise to 30 percent in 10 to 15 years. The international aviation organisations are trying to regulate this and they’re working on a resolution to address CO2 emissions.
Industry Authorities & Initiatives 2021 – CORSIA
In 2021, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme of International Aviation (CORSIA) will come into effect. The main objective of this resolution is to stabilise the emissions and if possible, decrease them. However, it’s something that has to be accepted by all the companies internationally, so it’s still a work in progress. It won’t be easy to implement these rules, because compliance will be voluntary. It will depend if countries want to abide by the resolution. I know the European nations want to abide by the resolution but as I said before, there are other companies that are already trying to improve performance in order to reduce carbon emissions.
Alternative Sustainable Options in Aviation
One option is to reduce the amount of fuel consumed, so this in turn will reduce the amount of money spent on fuel. Alternatively, there are fuel technologies being developed such as biofuel and fuelless planes that use solar energy or hydrogen to propel the aircraft, but it’s something that will take time to bear fruit.
J: In regards to fuelless planes as an alternative option for more sustainability in aviation, do you believe these to be viable concepts that will be taken on?
S: I believe so, because there are many companies that are trying to develop electric propelled engines. There are small aircraft prototypes developed by Cessna, along with Airbus and AgustaWestland. NASA is also developing solar powered aircraft. Plus there is the Solar Impulse, where the pilot successfully made a trip around the world.
J: Yes, I remember that, it’s a beautifully designed aircraft
S: Yes it has really long wings covered by solar panels to propel it. At the moment it can only carry one person, so it’s not really efficient. This is one of the main issues of the electric propelled aircraft – if you need solar panels, they have a very low fuel efficiency rate and you cannot get a lot of energy. The same applies to batteries. The example from Airbus uses batteries but you need a big mass of batteries, which are heavy and don’t deliver on endurance. So it’s still not possible to have a full flight or you can only fly a one-seater aircraft. I believe it will take a few years before these technologies become effective.
Electrical Engine Project at the Institute for Aerospace Technology, University of Nottingham
Here at the Institute for Aerospace Technology at the University of Nottingham, the focus is on more electric aircraft. Researchers are looking at ways to reduce the impact of CO2 emissions and the carbon dioxide footprint. One of my colleagues is working on an electrical engine that can be attached to the landing gear of the aircraft. It allows the aircraft to completely depart from the gate and reach the runway without using the engine. A lot of fuel is wasted on that small part of the flight, particularly if there are delays or if the aircraft has to wait on the runway with the engine running. Plus, it produces a lot of CO2. So we’re looking at designing an engine that will be set either on the landing gear, or will be detachable and help to bring the aircraft from the gate to the runway, or vice versa, during the taxiing phase. This is an example of an electric system that’s being researched.
Main Elements Driving the Future of Aviation and Suborbital Flights
J: This ties into what we just discussed, but what do you believe is going to be the biggest contributor towards the future of aviation, in as far as these new technologies are concerned? Out of the points you've mentioned, which in your opinion will have the most impact?
S: There are a combination of different technologies and techniques that can drive the future of aviation. As I mentioned before with the Skylon project, the future may lie in suborbital flight. This involves flights at high speed, which are very short so you can reach the other side of the world in a few hours.
There is strong interest in space tourism. The combination of this interest and the development of the previously mentioned technologies may lead to the growth of a new concept in the aviation industry – suborbital flights.
Suborbital flights could connect distant cities and reduce flight times. But it would be a technology used for longer flights and not necessarily regional flights. In the future, it will be a combination of the two. For shorter range regional flights you could use standard aircraft, with the new blended body aircraft design, but for longer distances you could use this new technology, which is similar to the Concorde but a bit more advanced. That’s what I would like to see in the future.
J: Are there any important areas in the future of aviation technology that we haven’t covered?
Another colleague is working on the Take-off Optimisation Project, the optimisation of the procedure before take-off. He has developed an algorithm that optimises the timing and the trajectory, or the path that the aircraft follows to reach the gate or the runway, taking into account the position of the other aircraft around the airport. This could be useful in reducing delays, as it provides the pilot with information on when he needs to go from the gate to the runway, without waiting for the approval from the air traffic controller. At the same time it will reduce the amount of effort for the air traffic controllers, because this system will integrate the avionics of the aircraft – this is another example of the technologies that we are researching to improve the performance of the airport and the aircraft itself.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and ‘Flying Cars’
J: I don’t know if you have any thoughts on private aviation, as in private jets, but do you think that aircraft manufacturers are working on anything, or do you know of any developments on that front?
S: I have seen videos of companies that are developing new concepts for aircraft. I wouldn’t say “private jets”, but in this case small UAVs, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Take the concept of UAVs and drones for example, and apply it to a car that can switch from a car’s configuration to a plane’s configuration, using fixed wings and the deployment of a propeller engine. This is a prototype that has been already tested.
Airbus Future Projects, Flying Cars and UAVs
I believe Airbus is working on a larger system, where the main part of the car can detach from the wheel segment. It has four rotors that enable it to convert into a UAV, so you can take off, leave the wheels behind and then come back. This is a concept that I have seen in one of the videos promoted by Airbus, but the main issue is how to regulate these flying cars. If everyone had this kind of car, and could take off from anywhere, there would need to be a specialised driving licence. There would also need to be a reliable collision and avoidance system, plus the traffic would need to be regulated from the road to the sky, along defined routes, highways or specific paths in the air. It is certainly being considered, but will need a lot of input from an airport regulation and certification point of view. Technologies can sometimes develop very quickly, but the organisations that deal with the regulation cannot keep up with the pace of growth. It is often hard for a company to develop a system with no regulation to govern it.
J: If you could think of a word to describe the future of aviation what would it be?
S: The word that I would like to use is “greener.”
J: And now just one final question, do you have any thoughts on how Brexit might impact UK aviation?
S: I’m not too sure. I hope it will not affect the UK’s aviation industry, because even though Great Britain is leaving the EU, it will still be part of Europe physically. Europe and the UK need each other, so I hope that our collaborations will continue.
interview with Aerospace Engineer, Simone Paternostro, has revealed some key insights into the future of aviation. A greener future could be on the horizon, with the blended wing body design leading to more fuel-efficient aircraft and reduced CO2 emissions. Another key advancement in this area, is the use of carbon fibre composite materials, with NASA, Boeing and Airbus leading the way in new aviation technologies and aircraft design. Other advancements in sustainable aviation include research into electric engines and solar-powered aircraft, such as the Solar Impulse. Rocket engines and suborbital flight are being studied by Reaction Engines, as part of the the Skylon Project. Suborbital flights could drastically cut international flight times, with the potential to fly from London to Sydney in just four hours, instead of the current 23.