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Watching the Future for Aviation

This last year has seen an interesting evolution in the debate about aviation emissions relative to all other modes of transportation. It was nearly a decade ago that the topic was a daily conversation in the media but then, seemingly, it was not so high on the agenda, it wasn’t something that appeared in every presentation, every business plan, any strategic review of an aircraft operator’s future, or indeed those of an airport. Things however have changed. An aircraft today like the Airbus A220 can take 140 passengers out of our airport, over 2,000 miles and is producing around 52 grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre, a lot less than lobbyists against aviation would have us all believe.

There are a multitude of developments in the aviation industry that will have extraordinary impacts on the ways in which we may travel, the choices open to us and the environmental impact of those relative to the status quo.

These changes fall into a number of different categories, including development of ‘sustainable’ fuels, usually a bio fuel and conventional aviation kerosene (Jet A1 fuel) mix and the development of hybrid powerplants replacing conventional turbine engines.

However, perhaps the greatest revolution coming is the advent of eVTOL aircraft, basically electrically-powered passenger and cargo-carrying, vertical take-off and landing craft – drones if you wish. Only a mere decade ago, the concept of the ‘flying car’ was still a comic-book fantasy, something out of the Jetsons. However, the progress in this sector has accelerated beyond anyone’s imagination back then. Advances in battery technology and electric motor efficiencies now make these aircraft a reality.

That technology is advancing far faster than the regulatory authorities can cope with and so we will have a situation where certifiable passenger-carrying craft will be ready to be sold and operated in just a few years from now, but with nowhere to land them in central urban environments and no airspace redesigned to cope with their existence. This is being cited as a multi-trillion-dollar sector of aviation by 2030 and yet nobody is ready. Only cities like Singapore and Dubai with a handful of others, are proactively preparing the infrastructure today to host eVTOL craft. Vertipads, essentially heliports for electric aircraft, are needed in urban centres, maybe on tops of buildings or perhaps on train stations, to host these aircraft. Urban planners and ‘Local Plans’ haven’t begun to consider what’s required, including the power infrastructure for recharging these aircraft – massive power requirements in some cases.

The scary part is that from day one, over half of the 180 or so prototype designs under development all over the world are going to be autonomous from the outset – that is pilotless. The pilot is simply not needed with the technology proposed. They can follow fixed flight plans (routes) or be flown remotely – rather like the military drones in use now for several decades in war zones. However due to the likelihood that passengers might be somewhat averse to stepping into such a vehicle without a pilot, initially, one seat is likely to be sacrificed for a ‘comfort pilot’ as a set of eyes and to provide reassurance to those first-time users.

Many very big players are involved, including the likes of Amazon, Uber, Airbus (Oxford Airport-based), Boeing and many others, but the exciting part is that there are a myriad of smaller start-up companies developing incredible aircraft using extraordinary new technologies. Not all of them will make it into production of course – the costs of development and certification will run into millions per design, but innovations will be adopted by the survivors that will completely revolutionise urban, and intra-city airborne transportation.

Some of these eVTOL aircraft are optimised for short hops from a city centre to say a major airport – perhaps up to 30 miles above the sprawling cities below, maybe at speeds of around 70mph. Others are for inter-city runs of say 100 to 200 miles, travelling at speeds of 150 to 200 mph. The key for the success or otherwise of this new sector will be costs and infrastructure – if there’s nowhere to land, there’s no business. On the cost side, all projections are that these will be massively cheaper than conventional helicopters per passenger mile, black-cab taxi costs essentially. Of course, they will also be environmentally revolutionary, being all-electric, however they will also be massively quieter than conventional rotorcraft.

All this is of significant interest to London Oxford Airport on a number of fronts. As we own and operate London’s only heliport at Battersea, that is the only legal landing option today in the capital for commercial rotorcraft. However, as the eVTOL industry grows, we aspire to become a host for the development, manufacture and support infrastructure for this new aerospace sector. As part of the UK’s technology epicentre along the Oxford-Cambridge corridor – the ‘Arc’, Oxford already hosts manufacturers of the world’s most efficient electric motors for the automotive sector and batteries with the highest energy density. The synergies between the high-performance automotive sector in this region and the emerging eVTOL industry are very significant.

So, the future looks very interesting – all electric and accessible to all.