Major aerospace groups have so far been somewhat reticent to show their hand regarding intentions to pursue ambitions in the advanced air mobility sector, leaving it to start-ups to grab most of the attention. But GKN Aerospace got the industry’s attention when it recently announced three initiatives in the field, including plans for a 30- to 50-seat eVTOL aircraft and hydrogen propulsion technology.
There aren’t many companies with longer legacies than GKN, which traces its origins back to the iron business in 1759. The UK-based group, which is also very active in the automotive and specialist metals sectors, has had an aerospace division at least since 1939 when it started making Spitfire fighters for the Royal Air Force. Fast forward to the 21st century, and it now encompasses no less historic Dutch aircraft maker Fokker and engines group Volvo Aero.
Some commentators scoffed when the Skybus eVTOL concept was unveiled in early February, and that is how chief technology officer Russ Dunn reacted when members of his own team floated the idea last year. “Yes, I took a bit of convincing,” he confided to FutureFlight. “It’s true that there isn’t currently the power to support an aircraft like this, but we know the power levels will improve so there is value for us in developing an understanding of what the potential might be and what requirements it might have.”
Skybus is one of three new GKN-led programs that have attracted support through a £4.5 million ($6.1 million) investment from the UK government’s Future Flight Challenge fund. The other two are the Safe Flight project, which is addressing the challenges involved in introducing unmanned and autonomous air vehicles into existing airspace; and NAPKIN (New Aviation, Propulsion, Knowledge and Innovation Network), which is modeling what a sustainable aviation network could look like in the UK.
Just a week earlier, GKN announced a £54 million program called H2GEAR, which will seek to develop a hydrogen propulsion system to power a 19-seat aircraft. Like the Future Flight Challenge-backed projects, this one involves an array of UK firms, academic institutions, and stakeholders such as airports.
GKN is probably best known for its leadership in advanced composite aerostructures. It builds wing and fuselage sections, as well as empennages, nacelles, and pylons for companies including Airbus, Boeing, Gulfstream, Honda Aircraft, Spirit AeroSystems, and Leonardo Helicopters.
So what would it take to get a complete eVTOL aircraft to market, and one as ambitious as the Skybus, which is intended for applications such as park-and-ride services in urban areas? “No, we don’t have all the skills now, but as a tier-one supplier we have a unique set of capabilities, especially with Fokker on board,” said Dunn. “We have OEM-level capability and have type certificate ownership on the engine side of our business [through the RM12 engine for Saab’s Gripen fighter].”
GKN is not looking to go down the advanced air mobility path alone; instead, it is working closely with partners. “We want to explore outside our comfort zone, pushing the boundaries [of our capabilities], and doing exploratory work that will inspire us,” Dunn reflected.
The H2Gear hydrogen propulsion project, for which work began under the radar in 2020, is being conducted for technology demonstration purposes, with no specific application in mind. “The program doesn’t include a flight test element at this stage, but it could,” Dunn explained. “We have identified what we think the architecture looks like, and we could approach several OEMs. It could be applied for a UAV, a small aircraft or a sub-regional airliner, and we want to work with different prospective customers to understand the boundaries [for hydrogen propulsion].”
GKN doesn’t rule out building new aircraft and believes that it already has the capability to make a UAV. Its plan is to forge alliances with key systems suppliers, such as avionics specialists, as it advances ambitions to take a leadership role in making aviation more sustainable.
Despite the high-octane excitement whipped up with every new advanced air mobility initiative, Dunn and his team seem to be taking a measured approach, viewing forward-looking projects like Skybus as a set of points on aviation’s long journey to a green future.
“Even if all our aspirations were delivered on [in terms of new aircraft and propulsion systems], we would still have millions of tons of carbon dioxide from existing aircraft, and so the industry needs to look at [currently available] solutions like sustainable aviation fuels now,” he concluded.