Q&A: FlyZero and the future of zero-carbon aircraft

Ilaria Grasso Macola 24 July 2020 (Last Updated July 27th, 2020 09:43)

Developed by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) as its latest project, FlyZero can be seen as a step towards implementing zero-emission aeroplanes by the end of the decade. We spoke to ATI to find out how it aims to make green aircraft a reality.

Q&A: FlyZero and the future of zero-carbon aircraft
We spoke to ATI David Debney about FlyZero and the future of zero-carbon aircraft. Credit: ATI.

The Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) has announced its project to develop a zero-carbon emissions aircraft by 2030.

The project, called FlyZero, is backed by the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), with an investment of £15m.

FlyZero comes at the same time as the UK Government’s launch of the Jet Zero Council, which aims at enhancing the UK’s low-carbon aviation sector.

ATI head of technology for the whole aircraft David Debney explains what FlyZero is and what the future of zero-emission aircraft is.

Ilaria Grasso Macola (IGM): When was the project developed?

David Debney (DD): We started developing the project at the start of 2020, it has evolved quite a lot to get to FlyZero in the way that was announced by BEIS secretary Alok Sharma this week.

We have explored various options and our thinking has been influenced a lot from what we have seen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

We have drawn quite a lot of inspiration from the ventilator challenge and the way it was able to bring different companies to act in an innovative and collaborative way.

IGM: What is the rationale behind the project?

DD: I think it’s widely recognised that sustainability is a challenge that aviation cannot shy away from and we have to find ways to reduce the emissions generated when we fly.

What we are looking to do is galvanise the UK technology expertise that exists in industry and academia and bring them together to harness the combined capability.

What we’re trying to do is create a vision for a zero-carbon aircraft that could be realised by 2030, the kind of timescale we need to be thinking of if we’re going to hit the UK Government’s net-zero target in 2050.

The key ethos is just bringing everybody together to try and solve the problem more quickly. The 12-month project announced this week is really just the start of bringing a truly independent sort of viewpoint to the UK community.

IGM: The project is being backed by BEIS but what is the Department of Transport’s role?

DD: Whilst the funding comes from BEIS, we are naturally going to be working very closely with the Department for Transport (DfT).

One of the key aspects that we want to look at under the FlyZero project is how the use case for aviation might change.

Today, you have commercial aviation, which is made up of large aircraft flying from one large airport to another, but there are technologies that might enable a different use case.

Smaller aircraft can potentially take off and land at smaller airports, which then changes the design requirements for those aircraft.

That is one of the key areas where we’re going to be working very closely with the DfT.

IGM: What challenges have you faced since starting the project?

DD: I think the biggest challenge is trying to come up with an innovative solution to look at things differently and making sure that it’s something that the UK community can really buy into.

Given that the project is fundamentally funded by the government, we have to make sure that the outputs are useful to everybody – industry, academia and government – in the UK community.

Distractions have been another challenge, as a lot of stakeholders in the UK are facing existential questions as a result of Covid-19. In some ways, it’s been nice to give them a positive message, but obviously they have to balance that against other pressures that they’re facing.

IGM: What is FlyZero’s sustainability impact?

DD: The overall target for FlyZero is quite simple, to propose a potential solution that would achieve maximum reduction in aviation emissions by 2050 in support of the UK Government’s net-zero carbon objective.

When developing a project like this you have to consider what operational constraints might be, including contribution to climate change, input to aircraft design and potential for recyclability.

We’re going to probably look at that [with a lighter touch] because this is a very big challenge and to solve it in one year is not feasible.

We will look at some aspects of the materials used and how different choices of material may impact the sustainability of aircraft.

IGM: What was the overall response from the industry when you announced FlyZero?

DD: The overall response has been overwhelmingly positive. All of the industry players we’ve spoken to –  both large companies and smaller companies –  recognise that increasing the sustainability of aviation is a critical goal.

They are interested in having the opportunity to learn from each other and to see increased opportunities for growth, jobs and economic success through aviation generated in the UK.

IGM: Do you think you will share the outputs of the FlyZero project to a wider international market?

DD: Given that FlyZero is an initial research project, its findings are going to be disseminated amongst the UK community to people pulling in the same direction.

The ultimate aim for whatever product ends up going into service is that it could be exportable to the widest possible market, as aviation is a global industry.

IGM: In your opinion, what does the future hold for aviation? Are we getting closer to zero-carbon aircraft?

DD: I’m going to start by repeating a well-used line that has been heard many times which is ‘There is no magic bullet to the problem of decarbonizing aviation’.

On the one hand, there is no immediate solution for zero-emission flights, because of the size of aircraft and the distances they fly to. We fully support, though, the need for investment and the production of sustainable aviation fuels.

And the other end of the scale we have smaller aircraft. There are opportunities to change the energy source to remove the carbon from the energy source, by using batteries or hydrogen. The technology challenge, in this case, is finding the path to scale up those solutions as quickly as possible.

I think in the future of aviation, there is a place for all of those solutions to play a part. Considering them in the big picture and supporting projects into all of those areas is how we’ll take a major step in reducing the overall emissions from aviation.