Inmarsat has recently joined a project to develop the first automated zero-carbon regional air transportation network.

Founded by the UK Government, the Hydrogen Electric and Automated Regional Transportation (HEART) project aims to make regional travel on small aircraft greener and more cost-effective.

Set to enter service in 2025, the project will focus on the development of hydrogen-powered remote piloting solutions for small aircraft carrying between nine and 19 passengers and travelling for less than 500 nautical miles.

For its part, Inmarsat will help power a hybrid connectivity solution that will enable remote co-piloting and cockpit communication.

“Project HEART represents a greener, smarter and more efficient future for aviation,” commented Inmarsat Aviation president Philip Balaam. “We are proud to support this important project of the UK Government, utilising our 30 years of experience in satellite communication, navigation and surveillance for both commercial and private aviation, as well as expertise in unmanned vehicle traffic management.

“Working alongside our extensive network of partners, including Honeywell Aerospace, we are particularly excited about enabling remote operations for aviation networks of the future.”

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Inmarsat UAVs & UTM senior director Anthony Spouncer explains the origins of the project and how Inmarsat will help move it forward.

Ilaria Grasso Macola (IGM): How did the HEART project come about?

Anthony Spouncer (AS): The UK Government at the beginning of February last year put aside a substantial amount of money to boost the UK aerospace industry.

The government had a phase one meeting in Birmingham where lots of interested companies met and devised programmes and collaborations to improve elements of UK aerospace, from UAVs to technologies and regulations.

One of those collaborations was kicked off by a company called Blue Bear Research Systems and it brought together a group of companies to essentially drive the aviation sustainability element.

IGM: What was the rationale behind the project?

AS: In remote parts of the UK – especially in the Scottish islands and the Highlands –  we have a lot of dispersed communities where Loganair operates a partially funded aircraft service that flies to and from these islands with passengers and they take typically nine to 19 people.

In some cases, they arrive at low tide because the airport is the beach. Landing on the beach requires quite specialist flying, but it is also hugely expensive because although these aircraft are certified for single-pilot operations, they require two pilots due to the number of passengers.

Having two pilots is an expensive resource, [and you also] need to get aviation fuels to these remote airfields and do maintenance work on the aircraft.

The rationale was really to look at a cost-effective way reducing [costs] to almost a kind of Ryanair or easyJet per-seat hop-in price. [The project leaders] believe they can make big headway by getting rid of the traditional drive train, replacing it with hydrogen fuel cells and electric, which will reduce maintenance costs by 50%.

The other way to try and make it more cost effective is to get down to a single pilot, but still having another pilot remotely access the vehicle and initiate automated procedures in the event the first pilot is incapacitated.

IGM: Why did Inmarsat decide to join? What’s its role?

AS: For 35-40 years, Inmarsat has been in commercial air transport doing communication navigation surveillance and our network is certified for aircraft safety and emergency communication.

We wanted to contribute [to the HEART project], providing airtime and communication to the air vehicle but also better understand what would be needed for single-pilot or automated air transport.

Going from two pilots to one or no pilots and fully electric is a long process [that requires] a lot of demonstration and confidence building. We want to bring the technology we have today with our partners, understand what’s needed tomorrow and then see if we can develop the next generation of solutions.

IGM: How does the hybrid solution powered by Inmarsat work? What are its benefits?

AS: Aircraft nowadays have a lot of automated system on board – including automated take-off, landing and throttle. It’s not a case of connecting to the aircraft and completely flying it remotely but it’s accessing the aircraft and initiating predefined sequences that are on board. In our network, we have experience and capabilities in hybrid technology and we’re bringing one element of that in this [project] to have a go.

IGM: What are the benefits of this approach?

AS: As for benefits, it’s a double-edged sword because if you’re going to remotely access the aircraft to control it you need to be hyper secure. If you’re going to have that highly available and reliable backed-up communication, [you need] to be able to exercise control functions, and there are a lot of processes, procedures and discussions with regulators to make sure it’s safe.

It’s not just about the technology of the vehicle, [it’s about] making sure [the technology] is signed off and tested and that those aircraft are kept apart from other aircraft, and that it is safe for all airspace users.

Other main benefits include cost effectiveness, as you have these electric vehicles that can island-hop at a much more cost-effective pace, [as well as offer] reduced maintenance and improved sustainability.

IGM: In your opinion, will HEART be the first of many similar projects in the field of short-hop air travel?

AS: The UK Future Flight government initiatives all have different variants. Inmarsat is [involved] in two whilst Blue Bear is in more than two doing all sorts of stuff. It’s a way to push that technology forward, and I think that – with the pandemic – [projects like HEART] give us the ability to accelerate societal and technological change.

[Now] we’re all willing to do this, because if you can do passenger [planes] then you can do cargo [planes] and if you can do cargo, you can send medical supplies and other things to places where you might have not sent them before.