On the surface, the first Farnborough Airshow in four years looked much the same as it did in 2018. There was the static array of aircraft, the noisy aerial display of jet fighters, and exhibition halls, pavilions, and rows of chalets that for a few days in July become a bustling market town on a gentle hillside overlooking a business airfield that was the birthplace of British aviation.
This Farnborough, however, seemed different. Not just because of its long absence, but because the emphasis had perceptively changed. True, there commitments for airliners – though not the orders bonanza that Airbus and Boeing have often enjoyed. There were also important programme updates from the big two airframers, as well as plenty of military hardware and knowhow on show.
However, this was the show where sustainability became the central theme rather than a concern that exhibitors paid lip service to. For the entire week, aerospace companies were keen to stress that they are playing a central role in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint through technological advances.
Among them were the engine makers, talking about the evolutionary tweaks that will make their current programmes less thirsty, but about potential disruptive advances that could see dramatic changes in propulsion systems in the 2030s. Airbus, for one, has stated that it is actively looking at hydrogen fuel cells to power its next generation of airliners.
Visitors could also view some of the new breed of electric powered, vertical take-off air taxis – not yet flying, as few of the concepts have literally got off the ground yet other than in very controlled environments. However, several, from the likes of Lilium, Vertical Aerospace and Wisk, look less like quirky prototypes and more like actual light aircraft most of us would be happy to take a trip in.
Much has to change before these so-called urban air mobility platforms are soaring above our cities, although regulatory and infrastructure issues are the main hurdles now rather than the technological challenge of proving these platforms can safely fly. Their manufacturers are confident thousands of them will be in revenue service long before the end of the decade.
Some aerospace firms and their customers are going in a different direction, looking at the potential of replacing conventional engines with electric or hybrid electric power systems on existing airframes. This has the advantage of not requiring the design and certification of new aircraft as the types used are typically decades-old platforms. However, their carbon-cutting potential is huge.
Currently, the technology seems to be feasible only on light aircraft – training types used by flying schools or, at best, nine-seat commuter platforms. However, optimists firmly believe that electric motors – once proven in this category of aviation – are scalable. Much depends on whether scientists and engineers can find a way of reducing the size and weight of on-board batteries.
We have written in the past of how attractive a career as a pilot is for young people. However, the technological sea change the industry is going through in the 2020s, as it seriously addresses its carbon impact for the first time, means this is also an exceptionally exciting time to join the aerospace industry.
Just as their predecessors in the decades after the Second World War helped to create the jet age, Concorde, the Boeing 747, vertical take-off fighters and Apollo spacecraft, today’s young engineers can play a part in creating inventions that change the long-established maxim that aviation’s growth must be at the cost of damage to the planet.
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