Fly me to an asteroid, hydrogen becomes the green king of fuel, supersonic travel meets reality, AI gives predictive maintenance the edge, and the battle against counterfeit parts
Rob Mather, Vice President, Aerospace and Defense Industries at IFS looks at everything from new players in the global space race, to hypersonic flight, AI making predictive maintenance more accessible, tackling the ongoing issue of skills shortages and combatting counterfeit parts.
Prediction 1: The space race blasts off, with an increase in launches predicted to reach 27,000 by 2030
The space market, which is predicted to grow to $1 trillion by 2030, is experiencing increasing activity and creating an exciting new paradigm that includes new players, opportunities, and challenges in both commercial aerospace and scientific research.
Beyond the usual suspects, advanced technologies are making it easier and more enticing for new countries to enter the market. In August 2023, India became the fourth nation to land on the moon, and the first to land and deploy a rover in the southern polar region. A week after landing on the moon, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced its plans to send astronauts into low earth orbit and to study the sun.
Countries aside, commercial space activity is at the center of the modern space race, having tripled from $110 billion to almost $357 billion from 2005 to 2020. Space mining is playing a massive part in this as it gets closer to reality. The idea of extracting resources from asteroids and even the moon has been floating around for a number of decades, but only in the past couple of years has it neared realization, with samples now being returned back to earth. In fact, in 2025, humans are set to return to the moon—thanks to the Artemis program. This initiative includes ambitious plans for space mining activities. Mining initiatives are stretching beyond lunar horizons though, as there is also growing interest in the long-term goal of mining asteroids for elements such as platinum for green technologies.
However, the path to space mining isn’t without challenges! Ownership rights and legal frameworks surrounding space resources, such as The Artemis Accords remain a contentious issue. This evolving legal landscape will play a crucial role in shaping the future of space mining.
As Deloitte states in their Insight paper on Riding the exponential growth in space: “The space value chain is experiencing the emergence of many pure-play companies, which comprise a mix of traditional aerospace companies and space-focused startups. While many of these companies are primarily focused on the design, development, and manufacture of spacecraft, the majority are considering providing new and improved value-added services.” It’s clear that the imminent next phase of space development is giving rise to a space value chain that will continue to provide new revenue opportunities to different types of organizations globally.
Prediction 2: Demand for hydrogen fuel will grow – starting the trajectory towards 70 million tons a year by 2050
Aviation is responsible for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, with most aircraft powered by jet fuel. The European Commission predicts that by the middle of the 21st century, demand for flying could increase aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions by upwards of 300% over 2005 levels if no drastic measures are taken to reduce them.
So, it’s no surprise that most major commercial airlines are looking towards Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) alternatives, as they can reduce emissions by 80% according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). SAF can be made from several sources ranging from agricultural waste to carbon captured from the air. In fact, Virgin Atlantic has already made the leap to launch the first fully SAF powered transatlantic flight!
SAF is compatible with existing aircraft and fueling infrastructure. However, high production costs and limited supply have slowed its adoption. It is estimated that SAF comprises less than 0.1% of all jet fuel currently used.
So, what other alternatives are available for commercial use?
With short-haul flights of fewer than 600 miles accounting for more than 17% of airline emissions, new technologies such as electric and hybrid-electric aircraft are growing in popularity. But electric aircraft are only suitable for short-haul flights, so what about the other 83%? Hydrogen-powered aircraft are also being developed. Studies have found that hydrogen could play a central role in the future mix of aircraft and propulsion technologies. For long haul flights, such as transatlantic, hydrogen will be a much better option.
Such disruptive innovation will require significant aircraft research and development, particularly further development of liquid hydrogen tanks, and investment into fleet and hydrogen infrastructure. Accompanying regulations and certification standards will be required to ensure safe, reliable and economic hydrogen-powered aircraft can take to the skies. However, even in its liquid state the volumetric energy density of hydrogen is less than half that of jet fuel. So, you either fly half as far on existing-sized fuel tanks, or you need fuel tanks that are twice the size.
One organization already firmly in the race to full hydrogen powered flight is JetZero. JetZero is currently working on its own blended-wing aircraft design, called the Z5. The Z5’s blended-wing design will ensure enough internal volume to accommodate zero-carbon emissions hydrogen fuel, but it is also designed to be 100% SAF compatible. JetZero hopes to build a full-sized demonstrator by 2027, achieve certification by 2029, and enter into service in 2030.
Big players in the commercial aviation industry are also tapping into this promising new development – with H2Fly, Universal Hydrogen and ZeroAvia to explore the retrofit of their regional aircraft fleet with zero-emission powertrains.
The potential of hydrogen doesn’t stop at replacing existing long-haul flights though – other startups are looking to take hydrogen to supersonic speeds.
Prediction 3: London to New York realizable in 2 hours by 2030—as the Concorde’s descendants take to the skies!
When the last commercial flight on the Concorde landed on October 24th 2003, in some ways commercial aviation took a step backwards. For over 20 years, we’ve been stuck at transonic speeds. Now though, as Europe’s Vision for Aviation predicts globally a six-fold increase in passengers by 2050, faster flights are becoming attractive and a number of companies are looking to take advantage.
With United Airlines already having ordered a number of Boom Supersonic’s ‘Overture’ aircraft, the heir apparent to Concorde, and American Airlines following suit—it’s clear that major airlines are keen to tap into the future of supersonic, intercontinental commercial travel.
This time though, we aren’t stopping at supersonic. Atlanta-based aviation firm Hermeus is actively developing a reusable hypersonic aircraft for both military and commercial applications. Hermeus’ technology demonstrator, Quarterhorse, eventually aims to achieve speeds in excess of Mach 4 and potentially even higher thanks to the organization’s unique propulsion system design, Chimera, which is capable of transitioning from turbojet to ramjet modes. That dual mode capability means it can take off from a regular runway, get over the ocean, and then go hypersonic, avoiding noise and shockwaves that were a barrier to supersonic adoption the last time around.
But with climate change such a major concern, the question arises: will people one day be able to count on flying from Paris to New York in less than an hour without contributing to global warming?
These new designs are being explored to make aircraft fly faster, soar higher and now some are even designed to have a smaller environmental footprint. Destinus is developing a prototype hypersonic hydrogen-fueled plane that aims to transport passengers from Sydney to Frankfurt in four hours and 15 minutes. While it may sound unrealistic in the near term, the company has already successfully flight-tested two prototype aircraft.
Prediction 4: Artificial Intelligence lowers the barrier to better predictive maintenance as market investment grows by 29% by 2031
While the idea of predictive maintenance is well-established, the ongoing evolution of modern predictive maintenance deserves a dedicated discussion. What sets it apart today is the utilization of advanced AI techniques, specifically Anomaly Detection and Pattern Recognition.
Predictive maintenance began with manual data processing, which only provided a limited prediction capability, and the required expertise represented a high barrier to entry. It then evolved with the development of machine learning. Yet the deployment of predictive models was still limited by the speed, capability and availability of data scientists, and data had to be labelled and machine learning models also had to be trained – meaning the barrier to entry was lower, but still considered very high.
Now, with the evolution of Anomaly Detection, and the development of unsupervised learning models, AI can be plugged in directly to the sensor feeds, and work it out itself by learning what “normal” is and what constitutes “not normal.” When combined with Pattern Recognition, you have an early warning system that can provide remarkably precise insights into what is about to happen. That means fewer data scientists are needed, so they can complete more valuable tasks rather than time-intensive data labeling and creating foundational algorithms – so suddenly, AI for predictive maintenance is not only immensely valuable, but also much more achievable. As AI becomes practical for more aviation organizations, it is expected to drive a surge in AI investments from now until 2031.
Prediction 5: The battle is on against the predicted 20% rise in counterfeit parts– record ledgers become top of mind
Commercial airlines around the world are facing numerous challenges that are impacting seamless service. From a rampant shortage of ground workers and technicians, to the planes themselves, these challenges must be addressed by the industry in order to deliver a hassle-free travel experience. Now, some carriers, particularly those operating certain Airbus and Boeing aircraft, are racing to fix a new problem:
Counterfeiting remains the largest criminal enterprise in the world, bringing in up to $4.5 trillion per year. Counterfeiters have always seen the opportunity in commercial and military supply chains, and in 2023 there was a spate of fraudulent parts cases which impacted commercial airlines, grounding many planes around the globe.
Some airlines flying older-generation planes might have been duped into fitting their engines with counterfeit parts. Now they’ve had to rush to find the fraudulent parts and replace them. The aircraft in question are the ones equipped with the CFM56 engine, jointly manufactured by General Electric (GE) and Safran. In every instance, components were allegedly distributed by a third party accompanied by fraudulent release certificates, leaving operators with uncertainty regarding their source and reliability. One has to wonder if the strain on supply chains has led to a relaxing of due diligence when sourcing parts – allowing counterfeit parts to enter the supply chain more easily.
In recent years, the methods and tools that counterfeiters use have become increasingly sophisticated, especially in industries that rely heavily on an extensive supply chain network. Increased supply chain traceability and management must be the first step for preventing product counterfeiting. A management process that allows a brand owner to detect, respond to, and recover from this type of security incident is critical for a safe and secure supply chain.
A new global aircraft parts register is being developed at the University of Limerick. This aircraft parts register, using unique identifiers, will make the transfer of data between users, whether they are aircraft manufacturers, maintenance and overhaul facilities, or lessors, much easier and more effective.
It will allow airlines and MROs to accurately assess the origin and ancestry of any genuine part – and make it much harder for any potential counterfeit part to make its way into their hands.
Technology may offer an answer as well with organizations such as SkyThread working to find a solution and create a safer and more resilient aviation industry. At the core of these offerings is a distributed ledger for parts records utilizing Block Chain. The Block Chain model does have drawbacks, but it also aligns well to scenarios such as parts pools which work with a controlled group of participants. The collaboration between SkyThread’s blockchain and AFI KLM E&M’s leading-edge component support program is just such as example. Ledgers like this aim to facilitate, accelerate, and secure the tracking of components at every step from manufacturing to decommissioning – flagging and preventing fraudulent activities.
The commercial aviation industry needs to stay primed to capitalize on opportunities and mitigate against challenges in 2024
As the aviation industry launches into 2024, it will face a multitude of new opportunities and challenges – from new players in space, and taking hydrogen-fueled aircraft to new heights, to AI lowering the barrier, to predictive maintenance, and the rise of counterfeit parts entering the aviation supply chain.
Organizations in the commercial aerospace industry need to act swiftly to identify these opportunities and challenges, work to find a way to capitalize on the opportunities, and solve the issues at hand in order to keep ahead of the competition in 2024 and beyond.