To say the effect of the pandemic on aviation has been significant is somewhat of an understatement. At the peak of the shutdown, global air traffic was down 94% against the same period in 2019 with about two thirds of the world’s commercial aircraft parked or in storage. The effect on London has been dramatic with Heathrow closing all its terminals apart from T2 and T5 and the airport’s controversial expansion plans now looking uncertain.
However, the likely introduction of vaccine passports and other measures by governments and operators will soon start to allow the easing of travel restrictions and begin to lift the industry out from what may turn out to be a momentary blip in the ever-rising volume of air traffic.
And therein lies the much bigger issue for the aviation industry: the challenge of decarbonisation.
Aviation is an easy target for those championing environmental responsibility. The overturned court ruling rejecting expansion at Heathrow emphasises the complexity of the issues and the need to consider the wider implications of transport infrastructure.
However, it is important to maintain perspective. Pre-pandemic, air travel accounted for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. Perhaps more surprising is that 40% of worldwide emissions are actually from short-haul flights.
Whilst Airbus last year announced plans for hydrogen-powered zero-emissions commercial aircraft which they say could be ready for deployment by 2035 – there is the opportunity to make a more immediate impact by specifically targeting short-haul flights.
It is in this context that Project HEART (Hydrogen-Electric Automated Regional Transport) is seeking to do nothing less than reimagine UK regional air travel as both an environmentally and economically sustainable transport mode, fully integrated into existing networks using a Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) approach.
To take on this challenge Project HEART requires a wholistic and multi-faceted ethos with the Weston Williamson + Partners IF_Lab (our Innovation & Foresight Laboratory formed in 2018) being a key part of a 10 strong consortium led by autonomous flight specialist Blue Bear. It also includes hydrogen and technology specialists ZeroAvia, Protium, Inmarsat and Fleetondemand, the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University, airline Loganair, airport operator Highlands and Islands Airports Limited and British aircraft manufacturer Britten-Norman.
Project HEART’s initial focus will be on the needs of remote Scottish island communities which often rely on underdeveloped subsidised air travel between islands. Getting jet fuel to these remote locations is expensive and when combined with the potential to tap into local renewable energy supplies, the production of green Hydrogen starts to become an appealing alternative. This combined with the lower maintenance costs of hydrogen-electric propulsion systems, the use of advanced autonomous flight technology to remove the need for a co-pilot and more advanced and automated ground infrastructure, makes for an attractive proposition.
As such, the consortium is looking to construct and operate what would be the world’s first zero emission 19-seater commercial aircraft route, including dedicated green hydrogen infrastructure, with a first targeted entry into service date as soon as 2025. The longer-term view is to bring commercial services to existing underutilised low volume airfields - creating a new national network of zero carbon air services.
The UK Government’s confidence in Project HEART is demonstrated with the recent award of a £1.8m grant from the Future Flight Challenge Fund, backed by the UK Research and Innovation programme as part of the Government’s modern industrial strategy. This comes ahead of consultation on the Aviation Decarbonisation Strategy later this year, set out as part of the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution to build back greener.
As head of our IF_Lab, Project HEART represents a unique opportunity to contribute thinking beyond the design of airports and terminal buildings themselves and to work with our consortium partners to take the first very real steps in decarbonising our domestic aviation industry.
Things really are looking up!