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Cleared for takeoff

Britain’s aerospace sector is launching a new push for green innovation

By Josh Lowe  

Co-funded by the ATI and led by Rolls-Royce, ACCEL aims to break the world record for the fastest all-electric flight

This article is an interview with Gary Elliott, the Chief Executive of the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI).

When most people think of action to tackle climate change, the aerospace industry may not be the first partner that springs to mind. But with the goal of a net zero aviation industry—or “jet zero”—featuring in the Prime Minister’s plans for a “green industrial revolution,” many in the sector are applying themselves to the challenge.

Gary Elliott, Chief Executive of the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), says we shouldn’t be surprised: after all, engineers are all about solving tough problems. Here, he speaks to Prospect about the ATI’s new FlyZero project, the impact of the pandemic, and how to provoke new disruption. 

How seriously has the aerospace industry taken environmental concerns in the past?

It’s always taken them seriously, whether it’s through international agreements such as the ACARE FlightPath 2050 goals or through technology, such as more fuel-efficient engines or more lightweight materials. But I think in the last two years or so environmental concerns have become much more of a dominant force. That shift has been driven partly by public awareness of climate change—people and whole industries are more aware, and therefore they feel the need to participate and do their bit. 

I would also say that the sector is made up of highly-innovative engineers, and they love a challenge, and they love to make a difference, and they love to improve things. Now they have a moral imperative as well. 

And there’s also been a few people that have been pushing change. I would say, rather boldly, the ATI has been pushing that agenda. When that became a big part of our strategy and also the way we assess projects that we might fund, then it encouraged a lot of positive technological change for sustainability.

How exactly does green aviation and sustainability fit into your strategy?

It’s basically number one. In our current technology strategy, Accelerating Ambition, we talk about the need for net zero emissions and sustainability, and suggest the different types of technologies that will be needed to get there. So we’re encouraging people to make this an area of focus.

Then last July we launched a project called FlyZero, which is about trying to understand: what are the technologies and the aircraft designs of the future that will get us to net zero? We have Government investment of £15m to fund about 100 people who will look at all sorts of potential aircraft technologies and draw conclusions as to what we need to do to get to net zero.

What specifically is the intended outcome of FlyZero?

Every aircraft type has a slightly different challenge. If it travels across the Atlantic, for example, it’s very tricky to get to net zero, because of its sheer size and the amount of energy required to get it that far. Whereas if you’ve got a smaller regional jet that might take you to the Outer Hebrides, then it has slightly different challenges. So each aircraft type and size needs to be looked at.

The idea is that the team will look at many of those different platforms and try to work out what it is that is required to achieve net zero for them. It may be battery technology, it might be hydrogen, it might be a hybrid of those; it may be sustainable aviation fuels for the larger aircraft. And then we need to decide which of those technologies we really want to invest in for the next few years.

What’s been the government and industry response to the project?

Firstly, we are fully backed by the government with 100 per cent funding from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. We are also part of the Jet Zero Council, led by the Prime Minister and attended by the business and transport secretaries. And FlyZero is mentioned in the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. So they are fully supportive.

When it comes to industry, they’re absolutely behind the project as well. Lots of the big companies have already stepped up to participate, we’ve got lots of smaller companies showing an interest, sometimes in a slightly different way because of their resource limitations. One of the things I’ve noticed is that those of us who are a bit older in the sector are much more vocal and much more positive in pushing change than I’ve ever seen before.

When and how will the FlyZero project release findings?

It’s a one-year project, but I’m really keen that we don’t wait until the project concludes to decide what we need in terms of funding to continue. I want to draw some conclusions that allow us, in parallel, to develop other technologies. We’re already doing that in the ATI—within our portfolio of investments, there are many technologies that are absolutely consistent with what FlyZero is doing.

If you’re looking to support particular technologies, is this about picking winners?

We will remain very open minded at the beginning. But if we are to draw conclusions, that means we need to choose winners. But engineers are very good at making tradeoffs and trying to determine what is the best technology. That’s something we’ve done since engineering has existed.

And is this just a technological problem? Or are there other aspects as well?

It’s also about understanding what is commercially viable—there’s no point having a technology that doesn’t have a market. And it’s about trying to understand public perception and different business models. It may be, for example, that we can come up with a solution that requires people to take two flights rather than one to get to their destination. But in doing so, they know they are travelling with net zero carbon emissions.

With the pandemic causing such damage to the aviation industry, what priority is being given to meeting environmental targets at the moment?

In some ways, there’s been more of a push—certainly in terms of people requesting funding for projects. The reality is that the sector is all about innovation. Unless you innovate, then you don’t compete and you die. Therefore, companies haven’t given up on innovating. And by no means has sustainability dropped down the list of priorities. 

What other projects or programmes Is the ATI supporting in the area of green aviation?

We have some ambitions for a centre of excellence for UK aerospace battery technology. The country has invested heavily already in batteries for the automotive sector, so what we’re looking at is: how do we convert some of that knowledge and capability for aerospace? Because aerospace has slightly different challenges when it comes to using batteries.

We are supporting several projects focused on the use of hydrogen as a fuel source. And we’re investing in new materials: graphene, as an example—new materials and new production methods that reduce the weight of the aircraft and improve its performance. Pretty much everything we invest in, I would say, has some form of impact on the sustainability agenda. 

Are we likely to start seeing lots of new entrants into the sector, new disruptive organisations? Or is aerospace just a sector where the barriers to entry are too big for that?

I think we will—indeed we already are seeing some disruption. There’s certainly a lot of new entrants at the very small scale. There are lots of startup companies playing in the space of so-called flying taxis, or urban air mobility. But I think what we’ll find is some of the technology developed at the bottom, and on a smaller scale, might find its way up into the more mature, larger aircraft companies, and vice versa.

To provide additional support to startups the ATI also has an accelerator program, which is about giving companies the opportunity to get into aerospace and prove their technology. Through the ATI Boeing Accelerator, they’ll be put in contact with the right people in larger organisations and may even get funding to prove their idea. It’s been a great success and we are just about to welcome the second cohort of startups into the programme.

This article features in Prospect’s new “Green Recovery” report, published in partnership with SNC Lavalin, Atkins, Ricardo and the Aerospace Technology Institute. Read the full report PDF here.

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