Airbus Interview: “Lift off to a Sustainable Future, Together”

Peter Pirklbauer is convinced that the future of the aviation industry is about cooperation across sectors. “The aeroplane is just one element of the air travel system, together we lift off to a sustainable future,” the Innovation Manager – Emerging Technologies & Concepts at Airbus tells us. What else is Airbus up to? We had a chance to talk to Pirklbauer about sustainability and current technological and business imperatives.

Mr Pirklbauer, what needs to change in the aviation industry so that it can become more sustainable?

Peter Pirklbauer: Designing a clean and eco-efficient family of products goes way beyond aircraft design as it incorporates the entire aviation ecosystem – from enabling infrastructure to future forms of fuel. The aviation industry has taken tremendous efforts over the past 60 years: it has cut fuel consumption and CO 2 emissions per seat by more than 80%, NOX emissions by 90% and noise by 75% of aircraft in operations. At Airbus, our commitment is to take “Flying Green” to the skies by 2035 with an aircraft that follows our ambitious targets towards zero-emission. On this complex path we’re entering, next to automotive, a new paradigm in the industry: innovation through cooperation across the traditional boundaries of the industry to better support the aviation industry’s transition to sustainable energy.

How can the aviation industry adapt to this new paradigm?

We must start with the new generation. This means our approach to education needs adaptation – both within companies, but also in terms of formal education such as university programs. We’re looking for both specialisations in new disciplines as well as generalists able to interconnect complex environments in highly interdependent businesses.

For example, the profile of an aircraft engineer and the profile of a biologist are run in parallel right now. But to innovate with the goal of increasing sustainability in the aviation industry, for example with biomimetic design, you clearly prefer both combined.

© Airbus S.A.S. For projects like the CityAirbus, energy development and aircraft engineering go hand in hand.

Another example is that as a manufacturer, we increasingly work with city authorities to consider landing approaches. And of course, our collaboration with airports is intensifying. All of this needs to be reflected in the heterogeneity of our future employees as urban air mobility architects.

Complexity has always been the second name of our industry.

Could you give an example of why cooperation is so important these days?

Three very recent examples of merging disciplines are the Bionic Partition project where we studied a slime mould’s movement algorithm to derive generative design patterns for lightweight design, the study of the albatross bird for our free semi-aeroelastic wing hinge demonstrator “AlbatrossOne” as well as fellow’fly, flying aircraft in formation riding wakes for free lift that mimic geese when migrated in flight.

We’re translating design from nature to design solutions adapted for aviation. Hence cooperation is so important, for example with biologists and dedicated universities. This is key to embody the “Nature as Blueprint” idea.

When we talk about sustainability today, several factors are to be considered. An example is the lifecycle approach, where we monitor and minimise the environmental impacts of our processes and products at each stage of their lifecycle, optimising aircraft operations and maintenance for enhanced environmental performance, managing the impact of manufacturing thanks to cleaner technologies and processes as well as working with the supply chain for a shared vision of environmental responsibility. These are complex issues – but complexity has always been the second name of our industry!

What is a hybrid aeroplane?

The term “hybrid” has generally two different meanings:

  1. Hybrid electric powertrain: this refers to using two different propulsion systems, such as a turbine engine and an electric motor, to drive the aircraft.
  2. Serial hybrid propulsion: an electric motor is the only propulsion system. It is powered by different types of energy sources such as batteries and a fuel-powered generator.

In all cases, the idea is to combine different solutions to reduce emissions without compromising on range.

Speaking of alternative propulsion systems and energy sources – Airbus is very active in the development of electric and hybrid technology. What will this new technology change in our industry?

We have a range of demonstrators on track, such as the E-Fan X hybrid aircraft or the CityAirbus Alpha. To us, the outcome of these aircraft architectures will have a significant impact on future configurations as well as operational models. Think of urban mobility, helicopter shuttles using an app, low-noise take-offs and landings. Together with SAS (Scandinavian Airlines), we have taken a leadership position to research and develop electric and hybrid-electric aircraft operations ecosystems and related infrastructure requirements.

Creating partnerships for new endeavours with airport operators, municipalities and regulators, and our business has got a new B2C dimension in recent years.

“Creating partnerships for new endeavours with airport operators, municipalities and regulators, and our business has got a new B2C dimension in recent years. Another aspect of collaboration is that we work together with other OEMs in aviation to set the technological standards, such as for the thermal management when dealing with high voltages in electric propulsion systems.

© Airbus S.A.S.

When will these technologies be ready for the market?

Our long-term vision is to build a zero-emission aircraft: zero CO2, zero NOx, zero noise. Until we reach that goal, the path is highly complex and encompasses a mix of electrification and hybrid propulsion. But we’re also looking at other options like hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). We also need to look at the different applications and markets, such as transporting a few people over a short distance, a few hundred people over a long distance, and everything in between. These applications require very different solutions.

© Airbus S.A.S. Airbus’ timeline for electric and hybrid aviation.

Concretely, we are pushing boundaries with the E-Fan X together with Rolls Royce. It is going to be the highest power hybrid-electric aircraft that we have flown. We plan to have this technology demonstrator airborne in 2021.

The example of Tesla shows that once a so-called ‘good enough’-line is reached in terms of range, technology can take off and change the entire picture.

Critics may say it will take very long until electric or even hybrid solutions are ready to replace traditional aircraft. Some even say it is impossible. What is your answer?

The first answer is yes, it does take years or even decades. This is a step-by-step process. And yes, it’s a complex path and some technologies are in their early stages of development. Then again, we have seen with electric cars how a tipping point can be reached sooner than you think: the example of Tesla shows that once a certain range is considered “good enough,” it can take off and change the entire picture. Disruption often started small, or in case of range: short.

© Airbus S.A.S. Will “flying taxis” change the way we travel?

Finally, what are some other innovations you are working on at Airbus?

We see four major imperatives, and all have to do with sustainability in some respect: electrification, automation, AI functions such as deep learning in generative design and advanced materials. We’ve already talked about electrification, but there is no way around increasing the autonomy of aeroplanes. We simply won’t have enough pilots to cover the demand in the future. Therefore, we are working on increasing the degree of autonomous flight towards Single Pilot Operations (SPO) and dedicated technologies. Ultimately, this process involves AI technology. Finally, advanced materials and production techniques such as 3D printing are also substantially changing the way aircraft parts are made and AI-empowered robots are assisting assemblies. The future is also about people: at Airbus, we believe that by demanding more of ourselves, we can demand less of our planet.

Mr Pirklbauer, thank you for your time!

© Airbus S.A.S. “Often, we take our inspiration from nature.”

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