The Future Flight Challenge is helping 48 teams of innovators to revolutionise the way people, goods and services fly. With funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the FFC is forging new bonds between innovators, researchers and asset owners to kickstart an aviation revolution in the UK. Here we’ll bring you the latest information about the FFC, details of projects funded and explain how you can get involved.

Transport and climate change

Climate change is high on the agenda with COP26 (United Nations Climate Change Conference) scheduled to be held in the UK in November and the government’s focus on a ‘green recovery’ from the Covid-19 pandemic. And, as the UK looks to reach net zero emissions by 2050, reducing emissions from transport remains an important part of the challenge. Transport is the largest source of pollution and is responsible for 28% of emissions, so employing greener methods of moving goods and people will be a vital part of meeting the UK’s sustainability targets.

HyStYRIAA 2.0 which stands for Hydrogen Storage to Energise Robotics in Air Applications, being delivered by H2GO Power, is a prime example of a FFC project that can contribute to this goal. The project will build and trial hydrogen storage systems on flights, building upon a successful first generation system demonstrated recently. Demonstrating the usability of hydrogen as a flight fuel has significant implications for the future of flight and could eventually reduce the traditional reliance on jet fuel. Hydrogen is known as a ‘cleaner’ fuel, but it comes with its own unique challenges when it comes to flight. As Enass Abo-Hamed, CEO and co-founder of H2GO Power explains: “Usually, hydrogen needs to be delivered and transported in highly pressurised containers. But our technique stores hydrogen as a solid or liquid via chemical conversion, removing the need for high pressure containers. This means the fuel is safer, cheaper, and lighter to use and transport in this form, making it ideal for commercial unmanned aircrafts.”

Hydrogen is also the focus of Dock-to-Dock, a project looking to reduce road congestion through drone deliveries. Specifically, the team are establishing the infrastructure requirements to support a system of hydrogen-powered autonomous aircraft and vessels to transport freight between Bristol and Cardiff. It is hoped that drone deliveries by sea and air could reduce congestion on the road between the two ports.

Indeed, the useability of drones in cities – and consequently the possibility of reducing road traffic – is a theme for many FFC projects. Easing this transition is the focus of the consortium behind FUSE, who are blending gaming and Geographic Information Systems to create a synthetic environment that enables high fidelity simulations, enabling different drone deployment scenarios to be explored and tested. The collaboration between Electric Aviation Limited, Geoxphere Limited and Cranfield University is built on existing flight simulation technology, creating environments derived from Geographic Information Systems data. The system enables different flight schedules to be visualised, allowing the industry and the public to visualise and experience the implications of unmanned aerial vehicles occupying the skies above. It delivers an immersive experience for the aviation industry, local authorities and the public alike to understand the impact of future flight systems.

The use of flight vehicles in cities is also the focus of Retroflight-Alpha, but here the energy of choice is electricity. A collaboration between Petalite and Vanti, the project aims to develop the physical and digital infrastructure needed to support electric vertical take-off and landing in high density urban environments. This will mean that operators can manage peak energy consumption and minimise the impact on existing electrical infrastructure. Petalite has developed reliable electric battery charging technology, while Vanti will develop Smart Core, an operating system designed for smart buildings that in this instance will manage battery charging efficiency.

But of course, it’s not just urban environments where new approaches to flight can make an impact on sustainability. In the video below we show how Windracers’ SWARM technology can be used to co-ordinate the use of multiple UAVs to tackle challenges like forest fires with water drops and fire suppressant drops. As Windracers CEO, Charles Scales explains: “The SWARM system will enable us to utilise our ULTRA platform in very large numbers. So we would be able to deliver payloads with pinpoint accuracy to a certain position.” This means the technology can also be used for a number of other purposes including delivering food aid and medical aid.

 

Future Flight Director’s Update

The Future Flight challenge programme is exciting because it combines two opportunities: finding entirely new ways to move people and things around the planet and helping to reduce the human carbon footprint. It also gives us a chance to accelerate new technologies into the wider aviation sector.

We are investing up to £125m into the programme, with an additional £175m from industry. The projects we co-fund will help create the aviation system of the future.

We are speeding up the development of new, greener ways to fly such as all-electric or hydrogen aircraft, and autonomous drones for deliveries. We are helping researchers and businesses addressing future challenges in areas such as air traffic management, operating models, ground infrastructure, and integration between new aircraft and new aviation systems. And we are helping to develop new flight concepts such as rural connectivity and small ‘pop-up airports’ that can be deployed, for example in disaster emergencies.

The emerging community we work with is large, diverse and vibrant making this a fantastically uplifting programme to be involved with. Our whole team is energised by the opportunities and challenges ahead of us and we continue to welcome new organisations who want to help shape the next revolution in aviation. I hope you’ll find this edition interesting and informative and want to join us on the journey.

 

CAA Update

Existing regulations are not always fit for the purpose of the novel products and services developed by the consortia participating in the Future Flight Challenge (FFC). The CAA must look to change regulations or develop new ones, but the content and scope of future regulations remains unknown. As a result, obtaining exemptions from the CAA for the demonstrations of innovative products and services in live environments remains complicated, and sometimes unsuccessful. Also, new products and services are being developed without any guarantee that they will comply with future regulations. The Future Flight Challenge team has asked the CAA and its Innovation team to help consortia address these challenges.

The Future Flight Challenge is one of the first large scale Innovation programmes which brings together consortia of innovators and the aviation regulator, setting both parties on a common journey. The role of the CAA is to:

  • Simplify the way consortia work with the Aviation Regulator, and help them to identify the regulatory pathways for the demonstration of their aviation systems;
  • Work with the consortia to convert project learnings into recommendations for new policies and regulations.

The CAA Innovation team kicked-off its collaboration with the consortia in December last year. The CAA introduced the services that it will provide to the consortia, and the benefits of these services to them. It also clarified the processes, methodologies, and ways of working with the CAA.

The CAA Innovation team is currently reviewing with each consortium their specific objectives for Phase 2 of the Future Flight Challenge and agreeing a programme of activities to support their project.

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