Creating a sustainable future for aviation with cutting-edge electric engine technology

Sponsored post by Julian Fielden-Page, AtkinsRéalis Head of Aerospace and Defence Industry and Futures Market

Young Team of Multicultural Engineers Use Blueprints, Tablet and Laptop Computers, Analyze and Discuss How a Modern Electric Turbine Motor Works. High Tech Research Laboratory with Modern Equipment.; Shutterstock ID

The aviation sector faces an unprecedented challenge: to mitigate its climate impact whilst growing to service an ever-increasing demand for global connectivity. As new business models and innovations emerge, there is a convergence of thought on an essential driver of this revolution – electric engines.

Both the existing aviation sector and those organisations exploring the future of flight recognise the need for electric propulsion. Seeking increased sustainability, the conventional aviation sector is embracing a variety of alternative fuels including hydrogen, batteries and hybrid systems. But while the debate over which power source is best for the evolving needs of the market continues, one undisputed fact remains: we need aerospace-grade electric engines to convert these alternative fuels into useful thrust.

The Advanced Air Mobility sector, meanwhile, is developing at pace, taking vertical flight into those new markets that are underserved by ground transport modes and out of reach of helicopter operations. This global ‘air taxi’ demand is fuelling innovation in smaller, high power-density electric engines, to deliver quiet, safe and sustainable transport that is underpinned by community integration and acceptance.

Whilst the needs of these two sectors may differ, they face common challenges: they need to develop technology that is fit for the complex aerospace environment; and which effectively delivers the benefits that drive customer demand for flight, and adoption of aircraft that use new power generation sources. Understanding these bespoke challenges and building confidence in the safety of the technology is vital for the success of both the technology and the market.

Exploring the challenges and the opportunities

AtkinsRéalis has been examining the concepts and technologies driving innovation in zero emission flight, and the barriers and enablers to its successful delivery, outlined in Powering the Future of Flight.

An important element of any discussion on electric propulsion units (EPUs) is to recognise they have many applications across different power supplies and engine configurations, each requiring complex tailoring and integration. This means there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ motor that satisfies the torque, speed and weight requirements of all applications. Loads from the engine will impact upon the aircraft design – and vice versa – so the industry won’t see the advent of a single ‘plug and play’ electric engine.

We consider five key challenges facing electric engine designers in pursuit of certification are: evolving regulation, weight management, reliability and redundancy, architectural diversity, and modelling validation. Considering these aspects when delivering safe and reliant innovative technology will require collaboration through shared lessons, and the development of unified standards to build trust in EPU design.

Another essential consideration for electric engines’ integration into aircraft is a clear understanding of risk. As a disruptive technology, it’s key that its risk concepts – and their mitigations – are communicated beyond the safety engineering community. Using a tool applied by safety engineers, Bowtie, may be the answer. It can be used to analyse examples of hazards associated with electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) and hydrogen-retrofit aircraft design, such as loss of thrust and failure to prevent sources of ignition.

While our example assessments only represent a small, non-exhaustive subset of factors, they show how the methodology can communicate a better understanding of threats as diverse as structural or electric failure and bird strike. Using tools to analyse risk enables them to be mitigated, and allows safety to be interwoven into EPU design – ensuring people perceive the technology as safe will encourage public acceptance, supporting the Zero Emission Flight market to scale up.

Show me the money

Electric engines could help the UK to maintain its position as a leader in zero emission aviation innovation, but only if capital is there to propel them. There is limited funding – both public and private – compared to competing nations, to drive the transition from prototypes to market-ready products, and at scale. The potential for market consolidation may disrupt the sector but innovators and investors alike must anticipate and mitigate the typical funding gaps associated with commercialisation, helping to maintain a competitive edge.

Powering the Future of Flight explores these issues in full and we invite you to get in touch to discuss these and other key questions affecting the aviation sector.

AtkinsRéalis is focusing on the future at this year’s Farnborough International Airshow and the industry collaboration that will help to shape it: over the week, we’ll be discussing resilience (working with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and industry partners on the Airports of Tomorrow initiative); realising the Future of Flight, including a showcase on the UKRI Future Flight challenge; and talking about technology, systems and future skills in both civil and defence aviation.

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