Aerospace & defenseJanuary 16, 2024

The future of flying: decarbonization in the aviation industry 

Avatar Alex Smith

The aviation industry is facing intense pressure to become sustainable, yet must overcome huge technical challenges to achieve its goals. Accenture’s Gilles Stahl, Dassault Systèmes’ David Zielgler and Lisa Belkhichane discuss how solutions may be possible. 

Since humans first took to the skies in the balloons of the 18th century, the history of aviation has been a tale of constant innovation. From the first heavier-than-air flights by the Wright brothers in 1903 to the affordable international journeys we make today, the industry has made huge strides in a little over 100 years. The aviation industry has been facing for decades the challenge of reducing its carbon footprint and already made significant progress in fuel efficiency. However, this is not enough and decarbonization is today a global imperative.

“The aerospace industry is about connecting people, breaking the barriers of knowledge and communication,” said David Ziegler, Vice President, Aerospace & Defense, Dassault Systèmes. “But we need to change the way we fly. Simply, there is no room for us to continue our addiction to jet fuel. I believe that the industry has realized this.”

Dassault Systèmes has indeed seen a growing interest among its aviation customers in making a greater commitment to sustainability.

“There is an awareness from passengers and the public that is driving aviation companies towards making a greater commitment to sustainability, out of competition” said Lisa Belkhichane, Aerospace & Defense Industry Sustainability Value Expert at Dassault Systèmes. “Sustainability is central at Dassault Systèmes and some of our customers are already talking with us about how they’re going to meet their short term as well as their 2050 targets”

According to Gilles Stahl, managing director for sustainability and supply chain in aerospace and defense at Accenture France, there are three major ‘levers’ which aviation organizations should focus on when developing their own sustainability strategy.

  • The first of these is carbon intensity,’ which is the carbon dioxide emissions produced per quantity of energy provided. As the industry continues to largely use jet fuel to power its aircraft, carbon intensity has not significantly changed over the last 50 years.
  • Next is energy efficiency, defined as how much energy an aircraft consumes as it moves. Efficiency has largely increased over the last 50 years, driven by efforts to improve the engineering of the aircraft over time.

“It’s in the core DNA of the aviation industry to want to improve engineering and efficiency,” Stahl said. “This has historically been more for economic reasons than sustainability reasons, but the result is the same. There has on average been a 3.5 percent reduction of energy consumption every year for the past 50 years, compared to 1.5 percent in other industries.”

  • The final lever Stahl identifies is air traffic, which has been growing by around six percent per year during the same 50-year period, according to aerospace school ISAE-SUPAERO’s Aviation and Climate, A Literature Review. This rapid and continuing growth more than offsets the gains made in efficiency, with the report suggesting that total emissions from the aviation industry have multiplied by almost three times in the last 50 years.

“Once you understand these three factors, you realize that the decarbonization roadmap for the aviation industry is just about addressing them,” Stahl said. “In the immediate term, for example, you could work on route optimizations, decarbonated ground operations or on increasing the passenger load of each aircraft from a cap of 80 percent to 90 percent to mitigate the impact of air traffic. There is also a range of technology improvements which can be implemented both in the near term and longer term to improve efficiency and carbon intensity.”[1]

Ziegler agrees that immediate term changes will need to be focused on operations.

“The majority of the greenhouse gas emissions from an aircraft come from the way you operate aircraft,” Ziegler said. “If you want to have a meaningful impact, that’s where you need to start. Air traffic management rules, direct navigation systems; these are simple changes that help you reduce emissions by a couple of percent each time.”

There are encouraging signs of movement towards these goals in the investments being made by aviation companies, but Ziegler also stresses the need for greater ambition.

“I think the first step is the realization from a human standpoint that we need to change,” he said. “We’re seeing increased orders from both Europe and North America for next generation aircraft. But now what we need to do is engage on new aircraft programs for the generation after that, with technology that will truly change the game, such as all-electric aircraft.”

Delivering such a transformation in technology requires substantial commitment from aviation companies to research, and there has been positive movement in this direction. Almost 70 aerospace, defense and aviation companies have made commitments to the Science Based Targets initiative, a global body established to help companies set emission reduction targets in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Environment departments are now being transformed to address the broader ambition of reducing the impact of operations and products on the environment and climate change.

“It’s a case of moving the paradigm from a purely economic concern and include sustainability in the equation,” Stahl said. “There’s a significant underlying challenge in being able to collect and share sustainability data, which requires a much broader approach to overcome. Companies are starting to realize that they need to invest in new digital capabilities in order to be able to collaborate with the wider ecosystem of stakeholders, both internally and externally, on this sustainability agenda.”

To help in realizing the vision for a new future in aviation, Dassault Systèmes is providing several sophisticated tools for the industry to utilize. Going beyond traditional 3D computer aided design to deliver innovation across the entire product development process, engineers equipped with the 3DEXPERIENCE platform can have insight into the quality and performance of new elements they add to a design from early in the process, helping to assess the impact of adaptations made to an aircraft. Digital prototyping, meanwhile, allows the aircraft to be analyzed in an operating environment without the need to build an expensive and wasteful physical prototype.

By delivering a Virtual Twin Experience allowing solutions for computer-aided manufacturing, computer-aided engineering and product lifecycle management, the 3DEXPERIENCE platform can help aviation organizations to design, test and produce the innovative solutions needed for a decarbonized industry.

“With the 2050 targets as the new context in which aircraft are being designed, the 3DEXPERIENCE platform is helping companies to better make an assessment of their aircraft and how they can innovate, in a very short time range.” said Lisa Belkhichane.

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform indeed provides organizations with a real-time vision of their business activity and ecosystem. The platform acts as a single version of the truth, connecting individuals, teams, departments and external collaborators across the business.

“Sustainability can only be achieved if all of the different strands of innovation are shared and combined,” Belkhichane said. “All of the stakeholders have to collaborate. The 3DEXPERIENCE platform allows partners to communicate in real time and share their progress and ideas as quickly as possible, making the ideation process for new solutions faster and more efficient.”

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform also enables companies to create and visualize virtual twins of products, processes and operations. This could have a particularly big impact in helping aviation companies in improving the efficiency and sustainability of their new aircraft’s operation after they’ve received it.

“We prefer to call our models virtual twins instead of digital twins, because it’s about more than just purely digitalization,” Ziegler said. “It’s about simulating the combination of real-world data and the full behavior of the system, to improve the way in which aircraft fly.”

Dassault Systèmes is also aiming to build upon the capabilities of its solutions by working closely with its customers and listening to what they need to achieve their sustainability goals.

“We have day-to-day communication with our customers, from start-ups to the large OEMs,” Belkhichane said. “The trends we identify, with their help, are deeply analyzed by our experts to build new knowledge and map out new concepts and a portfolio of differentiated processes to address them. We are developing innovation, both in terms of product and process.”

Gilles Stahl is hopeful that the challenge of decarbonization will eventually be overcome, trusting in the ability of aviation to evolve and improve.

“I’m optimistic, because this is a relatively young industry that has been reinventing itself in successive steps since its first beginnings,” Stahl said. “The innovation in aviation has been strong for the past 100 years, so I’m very confident in the ability of engineers to crack the technology. The rest is a question of setting up new ecosystem collaboration, but I’m quite positive that the industry will rise to that challenge too.”

Lear more:

[1] Tables of technologies sourced from – The Future of Sustainable Aviation Technology | Accenture.

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