On The Radar
The past week has been revealing for those trying to understand the role major aerospace groups are likely to play in cutting aviation’s dependence on fossil fuels. In the space of only four days, the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers announced strategic decisions that could reshape their role in sustainable aviation for the next two decades.
First, on September 17, Boeing unexpectedly said that it is closing its Boeing NeXt innovation division, just over two years after forming it in July 2018 with a mandate to advance the company’s capabilities in new technologies such as electric aircraft and autonomous flight operations. The company admitted that the division had become a victim of the extreme financial constraints facing the wider Boeing group in the wake of the one-two punch of the extended grounding of its 737 Max airliner and the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Leaders of projects underwritten by Boeing NeXt—including the Wisk joint venture developing the Cora eVTOL aircraft and autonomous technology specialist SkyGrid—quickly scrambled to assure the outside world that there is life for them beyond Boeing. However, the surprise announcement raised doubts about Boeing’s wider commitment to investment in new technology, and especially that aimed at making aviation more environmentally sustainable.
Just four days after the Boeing announcement, Airbus appeared to remove any doubt about its commitment to the latter cause. The European airframer unveiled three concepts for possible hydrogen-powered airliners that it says could be in commercial service by 2035. Its new ZeroE (‘zero-emission’) program has confirmed the growing impression that Airbus sees aviation’s green future as being firmly based on a hydrogen fuel source.
Back in April, Airbus had unexpectedly pulled the plug on its E-Fan X project with engine maker Rolls-Royce to develop a hybrid-electric regional airliner.
When pressed on what the shift to hydrogen might mean for Airbus’s plans in the eVTOL sector, a spokeswoman said that the company will complete flight testing of its four-seat CityAirbus technology demonstrator this year, as planned. This follows last year’s completion of separate trials with the company’s single-seat Vahana demonstrator. However, Airbus has yet to confirm what further plans it might have to develop an eVTOL prototype.
“The evolution of battery technology is moving too slowly for our overall ambitions for a zero-emission aircraft by 2035,” the spokeswoman told FutureFlight. The aircraft concepts revealed today are hydrogen hybrid-electric aircraft, but for sure some of the lessons learned from E-Fan X and the other eVTOL programs are and will be used.”
This further begs the question as to what Boeing’s position is on post-fossil-fuel aircraft propulsion systems. Which brings us to the clues available in a September 22 briefing by Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of product development Mike Sinnett regarding the company’s ecoDemonstrator program. It is employing a 787 widebody airliner to evaluate more efficient operations (including shorter routings) and the use of lower-carbon sustainable aviation fuel.
Sinnett played down expectations for the application of both electric battery technology and hydrogen fuel in aviation. He implied that Boeing intends to take a conservative approach to their adoption.
“The difficulty is always around the practical implementation and engines and how you ensure the regulatory environment and the technical environment [are] progressing together and maturing at the same time,” he told reporters. “We have come to enjoy a significant level of safety that’s improved dramatically over the course of the last 70 years of the jet age. And we know a lot about how kerosene is burned and how it can be stored safely and how it can be transported and how engines use that fuel in all environments, from the Arctic to the desert.”
In Sinnett’s view, battery performance is not likely to advance sufficiently to support narrowbody airliner applications anytime soon. However, he acknowledged that it might make sufficient advances in the next five years for much smaller aircraft flying very limited distances (i.e., eVTOL aircraft intended mainly for urban air mobility services). He did say that he anticipated “a transition to hydrogen-based fuels over time,” while playing down expectations of early and concerted adoption for aircraft propulsion.
On the basis of the positions outlined by Airbus and Boeing over the past week, there’s no escaping the contrasting levels of priority they are giving to advancing the adoption of reduced-carbon propulsion technology. While Boeing apparently feels compelled to slow the pace of investment in this area due to the harsh financial realities it faces, Airbus seems to feel there is no time like the present to double down on its initiatives.
Pressed for a statement on its commitment to new aircraft technology in the wake of Airbus’s ZeroE announcement, a Boeing spokesman sent FutureFlight’s sister publication AIN the following comment: “We have a full portfolio of future concepts under review and refinements at all times. We explore new technologies and new configurations and bring them forward at the appropriate time. Right now, our primary focus is on meeting the immediate needs of our customers in this unprecedented time, but experts from across our company continuously work to ensure we are evolving our thinking and capabilities as new opportunities emerge.”
By contrast, Airbus chief technology officer Grazia Vittadini stated that the European group will spend “billions” to support its bet to bring hydrogen technology into commercial service. Asked how the company could justify this at a time when it is having to lay off thousands of employees, she responded: “Why are we doing this now in a crisis? We do not have a choice.”
In the wider context, there are, of course, marked differences between Europe and the U.S. in terms of the political pressure to achieve reductions in carbon emissions. European governments have strengthened their commitments to press the sustainability agenda, in some cases directly tying financial aid for the battered aviation sector to advancing these goals. In the U.S., where the current administration has unilaterally pulled the country out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the government is largely leaving it to market forces to drive sustainability initiatives.
Politics aside, some carbon-free aviation pioneers feel that the established aerospace giants are not well suited to making what they regard as the required revolutionary progress. For instance, just a week before Airbus made its ZeroE announcement, the company’s former chief technology officer, Paul Eremenko, launched his own plan to convert existing regional airliners to hydrogen power to fast-track early adoption of the fuel by 2024. He told FutureFlight he had been prompted to start his Universal Hydrogen project because he felt big aviation corporations take an excessively “incrementalist” approach to introducing major technological innovation.