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Aircraft of the future Perspectives
from the Strategic Aerospace Seminar December 2022

Patrice Duboe
17 May 2023

I was recently fortunate enough to participate in discussions on the major innovation challenges for future aircraft, as part of the Strategic Aerospace Seminar. Its mission is to make the industry carbon-free and so ensure its survival. Here are my key takeaways from the event.

The seminar brought together over 200 decision-makers and experts from across the ecosystem to the Safran Campus in the Paris region. The plane of the future was at the heart of the discussions, which was also the topic of the roundtable discussion I hosted.

There has never been a more critical time to discuss innovation challenges in the aeronautical sector. For all the stakeholders in attendance, carbon-free aviation represents the primary challenge that will drive innovation for at least the next decade. Indeed, for Olivier Criou, Head of R&T & Lead Architect at Airbus, “the challenge is so big that we need to throw everything at it.”

Reaching Net Zero is an industry requirement

The well-known industry objective is to reach Net Zero by 2050. “We must do it… and we can!” reassured Jean-Paul Herteman, former CEO of Safran and current Honorary Chairman of GIFAS (the French aeronautic and space industry group). But time is running out. To meet its commitments, the industry must be ready to deploy zero-emission aircraft by 2035.

And considering development timelines, the real deadline for being ready is much closer. By 2027/2028, manufacturers and their partners must have defined both incremental and breakthrough innovations that can be integrated into future aircraft, and the associated systems design, ahead of design, test, and certification programs. It is a tight and rigid timescale for a 360° revolution.

According to Olivier Criou, everything must be reviewed, rethought, and optimized for Zero-Emissions aircraft, with three large areas of consideration and action:

  1. New fuels and energy sources
  2. Optimization and energy efficiency of the aircraft
  3. Optimization of operations

1. We need to develop hydrogen and SAF value chains

“Sustainability for airplanes is mostly an energy management issue.” – Olivier Criou, Head of R&T & Lead Architect at Airbus

Batteries will not meet the power challenges of large aircraft. The future for many is seen in green hydrogen, and that will mean transformation across the entire value chain, from upstream production to distribution at airports. However, producing this energy in a carbon-free way requires a massive amount of renewable electricity. Air France estimates its fleet will need six nuclear reactors to produce the energy it needs. This poses questions about the future availability of this energy and its cost.

Another avenue is SAF, Sustainable Aviation Fuels. These can be biofuels from green waste, biomass, or dedicated agricultural production, or synthetic chemical fuels. Each has drawbacks regarding availability and cost. An airline like Air France plans to consume barely 10% SAF by 2030, while existing aircraft can accept between 50% and 100% SAF, depending on their age.

Innovation must also address the entire combustion cycle, beyond CO2. That will mean improving aviation’s NOX (nitrogen oxide) and fine particulate matter performance, as Axel Krein, Executive Director of The Clean Sky Joint Undertaking (Brussels) noted.

Listing these constraints leads to a simple conclusion: substituting kerosene with a greener fuel alone will not be enough to meet the industry’s high ambitions around the environmental performance of aircraft. Manufacturers, suppliers, and integrators must work extensively on the entire aircraft.

2. Aircraft fuel efficiency must increase dramatically

In addition to new fuels, the sector has strategic plans and ambitious objectives to improve fuel efficiency. These include:

  • 50% increase for regional aircraft,
  • 30% initially for Small and Medium Sized Aircraft (i.e., the A320 and A330 families), before also rising to 50%.

To reach these, aeronautical engineers must activate all the levers of innovation, starting with continuous incremental developments, particularly around materials and additive manufacturing to reduce weight, fluid dynamics to improve lift and further limit drag, and the electrification of new subsystems.

But breakthrough innovations will also be essential, especially for engines. For example, Airbus and CFM— owned by GE Aviation and Safran – are looking at open fan engines. These involve counter-rotating fans and dispensing with the nacelle, increasing the flow of cooler air through the engine, which allows more thrust to be produced with less energy. Eliminating the nacelle also reduces weight.

Whether continuous or breakthrough, these innovations will significantly impact plane system structure (implementing new open fan architectures, for example). Some future aircraft may involve a completely reinvented architecture, with revised engine positioning, or wingspans that alternate positions for flight and taxi phases.

In this changing structural environment, only one element remains steadfast and critical: safety. That of the aircraft, its passengers, or the airports that host it. As different systems emerge, safety must be maintained at levels equivalent to or higher than at present to help pilots manage increased system complexity.

3. We need to improve sustainability by rethinking flight plans and optimizing traffic

Improving “flight management” and “traffic management” represent additional opportunities in the search for reducing aircraft fuel consumption. Even if eco-piloting now plays a part in pilot training, it can still be optimized further. For example, real-time weather data, provided by enhanced device connectivity, can encourage pilots to choose one route over another.

Landing is also being looked at, with a view to improving the use of runways and tarmac to avoid long waits in the air for landing slots.

The introduction of flights in special formations is considered an interesting option. Here a lead aircraft is followed by one or more aircraft that take advantage of the vortices generated by the lead aircraft to enhance their lift. The envisaged gain in fuel consumption could reach 5% or even 10%.

Inventing new ways to work together

These three key trends have been emerging over a long period and are starting to cause market disruption. However, we need to note that this innovation must be undertaken while maintaining what Olivier Criou described as “the economic affordability of traveling by plane for our customers and for the end customer“.

To do this, the whole ecosystem must mobilize, coordinating and organizing efforts with many new entrants. These new entrants, often startups, position themselves in unaddressed niches or on breakthrough elements that complement offers from long-standing stakeholders. They work on the verticalization and integration of new systems such as EMS (Energy Management System) into aircraft. There are many technological building blocks that will interest key stakeholders in the future. In the aviation industry, the cross-fertilization of ideas between existing stakeholders and startups, to accelerate innovation and mitigate risk, has a bright future.

Beyond breakthrough innovations, continuous innovation involves all stakeholders in the design sector, production lines, and the entire supply chain, as new methods evolve of operating, collaborating, and delivery. Digital continuity, digital twins, and artificial intelligence are essential tools to manage complexity and accelerate design and production cycles. The challenge we see right now at Capgemini is to translate the commitments of our Intelligent Industry approach into action.

In the near future, AI will be embedded in aircraft that are “safety-critical environments.” That brings unknowns: how will AI be certified in future? How can safe virtual environments be built that allow for the training and deployment of AI pilots for aircraft or drones with passengers? More than ever, data must be relevant, validated, accessible, complete, and not corruptible, while responding to different global privacy regulations or, perhaps, a specific unified framework. Cybersecurity is already and will be more so in the future, a prerequisite between manufacturing divisions, clients and contributors, users, and devices.

How Capgemini can help

The strength of an integrated group like Capgemini lies in our ability to offer all the skills related to these future challenges to long-standing stakeholders, new entrants and the two combined. Manufacturers and their partners will need to enlist expertise that is not always at the heart of their business models, but which exists in abundance at a company like ours. Similarly, the lack of engineers in Europe leads to work in ecosystems, including resources. This forces us to create new cooperation patterns and collectively revalue engineering streams in aeronautics. Without this work, the entire development of the aircraft of the future is likely to be slowed down, and the ambitious deadlines for Net Zero will be missed.

Meet our expert

Patrice Duboé

EVP – CTO Global Aerospace & Defense, CTIO South & Central Europe
Patrice Duboé has been working in innovation and technology for more than 20 years. He leads innovation and technology teams to deploy innovation at scale for global corporations and clients, with key partners and emerging startups.