Innovation to fly Australia’s Aviation sector into the future
The aviation industry is central to Australia’s economy and quality of life providing a critical connection between Australian communities and the world, while underpinning Australian business and tourism.
In 2020 we have seen the most severe recession for global aviation since the industry’s commercial rise in the 1950s. Understandably, the impact of COVID-19, including international travel restrictions and state border closures have dominated short-term commentary.
In Australia, the scale of disruption is most significant to the supply side – from Virgin Australia entering voluntary administration and discontinuing the Tigerair brand through to Qantas grounding over 200 aircraft and standing down over 20,000 employees. But the demand side also sees short to medium term impact after such a pandemic. While there are many happy to take an overdue holiday or see loved ones interstate or overseas (in travel bubble countries), there are also those that, in the absence of any government restrictions or quarantines, still shy away from travel for health or economic reasons.
But humans tend to exaggerate the significance of shocks, at the expense of gradual developments as highlighted by our recent report, Aviation 2030, that investigates the implications of long-term technology and consumer-led disruption in the aviation industry Many of the longer-term disruptions in aviation we explore are indeed dependent on funding and R&D today. With depleted cash reserves, some technological innovations may be delayed by several years – but the direction of travel is clear, such disruption is a matter of when, not if.
The future of Australian aviation will rely on creating an efficient and competitive aviation industry while ensuring a safe and environmentally sustainable future. To support this vision, two of the biggest innovations will come from urban vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) ports and revolutionary aircraft redesign.
Urban VTOL ports
Congestion is a growing concern for cities around the world, and Australia is not immune. Congestion currently costs Australia 16.5 billion annually and is increasing to around $30 billion by 2030. This has continued to spark public interest in emerging VTOL aircraft technology. There are however significant implications for airports, urban planning, and real estate with the introduction of such air mobility concepts.
A network of small, electric aircraft that take off and land vertically, will enable rapid, reliable transportation within cities to suburbs. In the 2030s, we will see intercity connectivity and the leapfrogging of poor ground infrastructure beyond suburbia. With the selection of Melbourne as the first international market for Uber Air in 2019, work is underway in designing the infrastructure needed to create a successful urban aviation network. For VTOLs to become a reality, there is a desperate need to establish the necessary ground-based infrastructure.
Ground based infrastructure can be classified into two categories:
Vertiports or Skyports: these are large multi-landing locations that can simultaneously serve multiple vehicles. They will host fast recharging/refuelling facilities, and the capacity to carry out minor MRO operations. These will most likely be concentrated in the CBD, train stations and airports.
Vertistops: these would often be single vehicle landing locations, where VTOLs can quickly drop off and pick up passengers without parking for an extended time. This category can include retrofitted parking lots (e.g. at shopping centres) and existing helipads.
Cost effective retrofits will likely make commercial sense in the short term but may require the most technical consideration. For example, parking adjacencies, passenger terminals, fire and light safety systems, and vehicle charging could all impact practical redesigns and building codes. Safety is of critical importance for certification and community acceptance, requiring co-operation and collaboration from all stakeholders – OEMs, regulators, operators and building owners and operators alike.
While the impact of COVID-19 will likely affect investment in VTOLs in the short term, it is clear the missing link is ground based infrastructure. Future proofing commercial and mixed-use developments will be in the interests of governments and major developers in cities across Australia.
Revolutionary aircraft redesign
Aviation has increasingly been the focus of public scrutiny for its environment impact, most notably carbon emissions. To combat this, the global aviation industry committed to high-level climate action goals, including reducing global net aviation carbon emissions by 50 percent by the year 2050 relative to 2005. Locally, we have seen Qantas commit to this ambitious goal and Virgin Australia trialled sustainable aviation fuels to reduce emissions.
The key to achieving emissions goals requires a revolutionary shift from traditional aircraft design.
Considering a typical aircraft lifespan can range from 20-35 years, we will see future aircraft be a combination of evolutionary propulsive technologies, including advanced turbofans and new engine core concepts, and radical aircraft designs such as the Blended Wing Body (BWB). This combined with an established sustainable aviation fuel industry will bring aviation closer to sustainability targets.
The Australian aircraft manufacturing and repair services industry is well placed to support global developments in sustainability centred aircraft design. With around 600 local companies participating in the aerospace manufacturing global supply chain, Australia displays strong expertise in research capability, innovation, and industry collaboration.
For a more in-depth vision of the aviation landscape beyond COVID-19, download the full Aviation 2030 Sequel report.