22 Sep 2021
On my latest episode of “Investing in Zero,” I explored potentials within greening the airline industry with Paul Hutton, Chief Executive of Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS). Founded over 30 years ago, his aircraft company has a client base including Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, L3, and Raytheon. Appointed Cranfield’s CEO in 2015, Paul has extensive experience in executive roles across the aerospace technology and IT services industries. With Project Fresson, CAeS is pioneering a new form of propulsion utilizing fuel cells and releasing no carbon back into the Earth’s atmosphere. They aim to make zero-emissions flight commercially available by 2025.
During our conversation, Paul described how his diverse range of engineering leadership experience—from working within the British Army to the private sector—has helped him position Cranfield Aerospace Solutions as a leader in green aerospace. Paul noted how the aircraft industry has been particularly slow in moving towards zero emissions, largely because it is so highly regulated. However, thanks to two key differentiators, CAeS finds itself uniquely suited to accelerate progress in the field. First, they have 30 years of experience iterating whole-aircraft designs to meet the needs of numerous global aerospace businesses. Second—and most critically—CAeS as an organization has been approved by regulators—here, the UK Civil Aviation Authority—to design “complex modifications” to any existing aircraft of any size at any level of complexity. So their organization is both a design and production organization with the ability and permission to manufacture modifications to existing aircrafts, empowering them to bring zero emissions to air travel as quickly as regulatory guidelines will allow. Essentially, as Paul says, CAeS has “the hunger and the energy of a startup” but with approvals and experience.
Paul noted that the aviation industry is projected to make up nearly a quarter of global emissions by 2050, so it’s crucial they start taking bold moves forward, as they lag far behind other industries in greening efforts. A few quick ways to immediately reduce the aerospace industry’s footprint would be changing the way air traffic management routes aircraft to save significant amounts of fuel, and using synthetic fuels whose net effect is zero, since they’ve absorbed carbon in their creation. But Paul holds the most rapid way to move efforts forward is creating small sub-regional aircrafts between 9-19 seats, which prove zero emissions commercial aviation is safe, achievable and commercially-viable to produce quickly, with an aim to scale up.
This brought us to discussing the exciting goals of Project Fresson, which is currently at “Phase One” of its four-phase project, with the ultimate goal of getting fare-paying passengers into zero emissions aircrafts as quickly as possible. They’ve begun by converting a nine-seat Britten-Norman Islander: CAeS already has the government’s sign off, and since this is a modification, 70% of its design is already known and approved, making it the fastest way to bring this aircraft into the skies. They decided on hydrogen fuel cells, which offered the range and greenness they were seeking, and landed on the 9-seat capacity, since this could service customers for brief, island-hopping flights of around 60 minutes. Ultimately, Paul notes, they are approaching the project not as a technology company, but as an aircraft company—they aren’t “hydrogen fuel cell evangelists,” but are aerospace designers seeking to add the goal of zero emissions to other crucial engineering factors like drag, weight, and durability. Looking forward, Phase 2 would scale up power requirements for greater range, converting a 19-seat aircraft. That would be scaling up the power requirements, Phase 3 would design a brand-new 19-seat aircraft around the previously designed and approved propulsion system, and Phase 4 would be to design and manufacture a regional-sized aircraft of 75 seats or more. Paul’s phased approach bodes the lowest risk, therefore making it the quickest way “to get a fully optimized aircraft flying in the skies.”
Paul also shared how CAeS is using new technology to disrupt their field. They’ve integrated AI into their fully digitized design services to not only explore optimizing an aircraft’s shape, but to consider what combination of materials would provide the strongest, lightest design. Additionally, they’re using 3D printing to discover what design most efficiently uses the smallest amount of materials. CAeS also has the advantage of association with Cranfield University, allowing them to make use of bright minds in the field and the university’s airport, where as they control the airspace, they can do experimental flight testing.
It was exciting to learn about the great potential CAeS has to disrupt and advance an otherwise slow moving industry. To learn more of this company’s fascinating work, you can listen to the full episode here.