Tech, supply chain continuity and sustainability are shaping aviation into a resilient, value-based industry. As they recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, commercial airlines are jumping into digitalization, sustainable practices and a self-sufficient supply chain for a long-term successful business.
Net-zero emission flights are one of the main objectives for commercial airlines, said Maurílio Albanese Novaes Júnior, Chief Technology Officer, Embraer. The Brazilian OEM expects to achieve this goal by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5° C. “In this process, the integration of novel technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) will be fundamental to optimize the operations and processes and make the most of our resources and time,” said Novaes. AI, coupled with other technologies, will enable autonomous flights, air frames, hybrid processes and electric proportions, among other technologies, he added. "Autonomous flight technology will be an industry disruptor that will force us to reimagine the way we fly," Novaes said.
"In the short term, AI will play a central role in increasing safety. However, initial applications should be monitored carefully until we are 100 percent sure about the results of increased automation," said Amanda Simpson, Vice President of Research and Technology, Airbus. But the process goes beyond operation. In manufacture, AI will determine sustainable processes but the human factor is responsible for correctly nourishing AI algorithms, she explained. “For the industry to feel comfortable and safe, we have to be aware of the data that will enable predictivity,” said Simpson.
Fleet renewal is another subject where AI can support companies in their journey to sustainability. Boeing, for example, is leading the fleet renewal trend as it aims to introduce more sustainable planes to reduce fuel usage and noise, said José Enrique Román, Vice President of Global Technology, Boeing Research and Technology. One of the company’s latest achievements in this regard was the largest purchase of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) for commercial airplanes, which is an immediate solution that will help achieve the industry’s long-term commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“But beyond this change, as long as we integrate tech, more benefits will permeate operations and traffic management systems for these fleets, which will optimize fuel use by creating direct routings and help customers optimize planning,” said Román.
Boeing achieved net-zero manufacturing processes and worksites in 2020 by expanding conservation and renewable energy use, while tapping responsible offsets for greenhouse gas emission management, as previously reported by MBN. The company also committed to deliver commercial airplanes that are capable of flying using 100-percent SAFs by 2030.
Changes in the aerospace industry take between 10 and 15 years to be used in commercial aviation, according to Simpson. For that reason, companies are already late to introduce their modifications to achieve the 2050 net-zero goals. “And in this process, we need to, as an industry, have clear long-term future plans. What do we want the next aviation generation to look like? Because these goals will change our supply chains,” Simpson said.
For instance, Airbus made it a priority to reach net-zero emission flights in part through its initiative ZEROe, which involves the launch of the world’s first zero-emission, hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft by 2035. But to be able to successfully implement this measure globally, “we need to have the necessary infrastructure. Thus, airports have to offer the right conditions for these operations and for the clean energy flights we aim to implement in the future,” said Simpson. The OEM is also studying solar-powered flights, which could be done using advanced photovoltaic solar panels. These panels are lighter, more flexible and capable of capturing more energy per square meter while harnessing solar energy into a rechargeable energy storage system.
Talent shortages are another urgent subject to address for this industry. “Our careers are no longer attractive and as an industry, we need to join forces to continue bringing STEM to the educational system at an early stage,” Román said. But to efficiently invest in the development of human capital, the industry “needs to be more human and work ethically to promote teamwork and make this industry attractive. This is an investment in humans beyond math and physics,” said Novaes
While the strategies are both numerous and diverse, the best way to tackle industry challenges is an “all the above” adoption process, said Román. “Tech, sustainability, collaboration and human talent all matter equally. We have to prioritize all these areas to overcome the impact of the pandemic while avoiding a sustainability crisis,” Román said.
Sustainability, net-zero flights and other megatrends will continue to disrupt the aerospace sector. Nonetheless, “we need to face these disruptions with the mindset of possible opportunities to design and change the way we fly, as well as to collaborate to grow together and contribute to our passengers and the environment,” said Abraham Sarraf, Vice-President Sales and Business Development, Airworthy.