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Birmingham Post
Birmingham Post
Hannah Baker

From electric planes to unmanned drones, what does the future hold for air travel?

It’s not been an easy few years for the aviation industry. First the pandemic grounded planes, then there were sweeping cuts to the sector’s global workforce, and now surging inflation and supply chain issues caused by the war in Ukraine are posing new challenges.

Despite difficulties facing the industry, there is still plenty going on - particularly in the West of England. Indeed, the region is now the UK’s biggest aerospace cluster, with hundreds of companies - from global giants such as Airbus and Rolls-Royce to innovative start-ups that are pushing the boundaries of technology - choosing the West Country as home.

While last year saw the aviation industry navigating its route to recovery as travel restrictions lifted and production began to ramp up again, 2023 is set to be “far more interesting”, according to South West aerospace expert Dr Steve Wright.

The senior research fellow in avionics at the University of the West of England (UWE) and systems engineer who has worked for Airbus and Boeing, says there are a number of areas where there will likely be significant development this year: long-range versions of small jets; electric flight; and unmanned drones.

“The South West is the true beating heart of the aerospace industry in the UK,” said Dr Wright. “Last year was a year of consolidation for the sector, but 2023 will be the first months of interesting green shoots of the revolution in aerospace that will burst out in the following three or four years afterwards.”

Here, Dr Wright explains what’s in store for the sector in 2023.

Unmanned drones

Dr Steve Wright is a professor at UWE and an aviation expert (Bristol Post)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year has accelerated developments in the unmanned drone space. According to Dr Wright, there is a “massive amount” going on that has been triggered by - or is even directly related to - the ground war in Europe.

He said: “This area of the industry is still a bit ‘Fred in the shed’, meaning the tech is still in its early days. It was going to be another year of consolidation for this space but then everything changed in February when Vladimir Putin [invaded Ukraine]. The perception of the importance of drones has multiplied - what they can do as an opportunity and a threat.”

Dr Wright said the war in Ukraine had accelerated developments in the space, which is fast becoming an expanding industry of its own.

“The military and civil applications are still deeply intertwined,” he said. “Everything that goes on in the military space has implications for civil aerospace and vice versa.”

What he is referring to is the potential use of drones in everyday life, such as deliveries. Amazon has already started using drones to deliver orders in the US - the service is called Amazon Prime Air - after receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. However, developments in the UK are likely to be much slower.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) released legislation in January 2021 about what drones can be flown in the UK - and where. But it could be some time before Britain sees the likes of Amazon delivering parcels in this way.

“In the UK we are a tiny little island and everywhere you go there is somebody standing underneath. That’s where the Russians and Americans have these huge advantages - vast spaces they can go and do these experiments without having to worry about who is going to get hurt if something goes wrong.”

Dr Wright said people working in the aerospace industry are hoping there will be “more clarity” in 2023 from the CAA about the rules around drones.

“We want a clearer understanding of what is ok to do and that will be important from an industrial point of view as it will open the door to things like delivery drones. But nothing happens quickly in aerospace.”

Electric flight

Vertical Aerospace’s is developing an all-electric 'flying taxi' aircraft (Rolls-Royce)

The South West is making huge strides forward in the development of electric flight. In 2022, there was an “indrawing of breath” for companies such as Bristol-based Vertical Aerospace, according to Dr Wright.

The company, established in 2016, is leading the race to develop the world’s first all-electric ‘flying taxi’. Its success so far has made founder Stephen Fitzpatrick - who also established energy firm Ovo - a billionaire after Vertical Aerospace floated on the New York Stock Exchange in December 2021.

The firm claims its all-electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicle - known as VX4 - will be able to transport a pilot and up to four passengers, travelling distances of over 100 miles, when it is built. Last year the company carried out a hover test - a significant milestone as the business continues to progress its intensive flight test programme.

Vertical Aerospace said the positive results of the early tests have allowed it to “progress confidently” on its mission to certify the VX4 by 2025.

“What will be interesting in 2023 is if Vertical Aerospace manage to get on to doing a real flight,” said Dr Wright. “For the South West, Vertical Aerospace is how Bristol and the wider region will maintain its aerospace presence. I think 2022 was the plateau phase for them and now they are about to jump to the next phase, which is the certification of an aircraft.”

Vertical Aerospace has already received more than 1,400 conditional pre-orders from some of the world’s biggest airlines, operators, lessors and tourist groups including Virgin Atlantic, American Airlines, Japan Airlines and Air Asia.

It also recently announced that American Airlines had conditionally committed to make a pre-payment for its first 50 deliveries of the VX4.

Spaceport Cornwall and long-range planes

The UK’s first orbital space launch from Cornwall earlier this month may have ended in failure but the teams behind the project are determined to spend the next 12 months “trying again”.

A specially adapted Boeing 747 from Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Orbit, took off horizontally from Cornwall Airport on January 9. It had a rocket attached beneath the wing of the plane that was meant to propel nine satellites into space.

But the organisers of the Start Me Up mission - a collaborative effort between the UK Space Agency, Cornwall Council, the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Virgin Orbit - said an “anomaly” had prevented the satellites from reaching orbit.

Ian Annett, the deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, has predicted further launches within the next year, however. "We get up, we go back, we try again, that's what defines us,” he said after the failed launch.

“The failure of this first launch is obviously disappointing, but it is really just an example of what engineers know very well: aerospace is hard, experience is colossally important, and one of the biggest obstacles is finding the political and organisational will just to get to the start line,” said Dr Wright. “Virgin Orbit demonstrated they had passed all these obstacles, and most of the technical ones as well – after all, the launch only failed at a relatively last stage.

“The Americans, Russians, and Chinese all had to grit their teeth and carry on after their early problems, and I certainly hope – and expect - that the UK has the same level of staying power.”

Virgin Orbit’s launch attempt comes just weeks after the last Boeing 747 rolled off the production line of a US factory after half a century. Rival Airbus also built its last A380 plane in 2021.

The demise of large commercial aircraft, such as these, has been some 20 years in the making, according to Dr Wright, who says vast planes are being replaced with smaller twin-engine jets instead.

“Twenty years ago there was a big debate about whether the future of aerospace was these gigantic four-engine planes, or a much greater number of smaller twin-engine planes and that question is absolutely the twin-engine planes hands down,” he said.

Looking ahead to this year, Dr Wright believes manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing will be focusing more on twin-engine planes and, specifically, super-long-range versions of these small jets.

In the next couple of years Airbus will be bringing out the A321 XLR. It’s a plane that will be able to fly 11 hours (4,700nm) non-stop. The aerospace giant, which has a major base in Filton, South Gloucestershire, is planning to connect distant destinations such as New York to Rome, London to Vancouver, Delhi to London, and Sydney to Kuala Lumpur.

“It will not enter service until 2024 but there will be lots of flight testing and development, so lots of people in the South West will be making an honest crust from that development too.”


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Airbus beats Boeing to retain position as world's largest plane maker

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