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The Future of Air Travel: In Conversation With Olivier de Weck of Airbus

At EmTech Asia 2018, VR Zone had the opportunity to interview Olivier de Weck, Senior Vice President for Technology Planning and Roadmapping in Airbus. We discussed the future of flying, the technology in our aircraft and also some upcoming futuristic aircraft concepts that are already at our doorstep.

We talked to Olivier de Weck about the future of technology for air travel, and what it means for producers like Airbus, airlines and consumers. Image: VR Zone

Let’s start by telling us more about your background. How would you describe your work?

I am currently the head of Technology Road mapping and Planning. Currently, I am working in Toulouse, France. I am also a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. I have been working at Airbus for several years with the main purpose of putting in place a new way to map out all technology we have and need. Also, new ways to create a roadmap which will tell us where to best invest in future technology.

Olivier de Weck presents the roadmap ahead for Airbus at EmTech Asia 2018. Image: Tommy Kan

When you talk about future tech, is it only pertaining to aerospace or beyond that?

Good question. We have what we consider as “classic technology” on aircraft that are well-known: structures, flight controls, propulsion systems, human-system interfaces. They form the basis of our products and we need to improve on them. An example is operating efficiency in aircraft has improved about 2.5% per year for the past few decades. It may not sound impressive but when it happens every year it is impressive. In about 30 years we would have 2x efficiency.

Currently, we are looking into other technologies that you would not connect directly into aerospace but can be very relevant in aerospace. For example, machine learning in autonomous drones that sense their environment and fly as their environment changes. Also, virtual reality and augmented reality, and now mixed reality (XR). We do have a roadmap for VR, with partnerships with companies such as Microsoft for their HoloLens. Airbus has Holographic Academy and the purpose is to bring in the technology and experiment with them to create the building blocks for custom applications for our customers. An example is using AR goggles to help workers in factory to execute their work more efficiently especially in assembly and quality control. We also work on applications of AR for troubleshooting and pilot training. Flight simulator for training pilots is very expensive and we still use the classic flight simulator. Now more work can be done on VR and AR. This is just an example of technologies that we are studying beyond “classical aerospace” ones.

 

The MIT Strategic Engineering website says that they are designing systems for an uncertain future. How would you describe strategic engineering in your own words?

Strategic engineering is a better way to choose the best design and architecture where the requirement in the future is not entirely known. What are the uncertainties in aerospace? How much demand will there be for the aircraft? Our factories are designed to be able to keep up with different levels of demands while maintaining profitability. Future systems such as drones would be operating in environments that are not entirely predictable. These vehicles need to have the right sensors, software design and being able to be quickly reprogrammed or reconfigured.

One of the keys in strategic engineering is flexibility and modularity. Being able to quickly reconfigure as the future unfolds and changes. If we design for a single future from the best guess and then a different scenario unfolds, the system can turn out to be something that is not quite needed. We need to think of the full life cycle of our systems for the next 10-30 years. Also, to model different future scenarios and work to get an architecture that can work well into these different futures. It might be an abstract way of thinking but when designing for the future, we have to figure it out.

 

When we talk about emerging technology, what would make the big impact in the future?

Over the last year, we had shaped the ecosystem for doing research in technology innovations to be more strategically oriented. The starting point is to look at into the markets, into the products and what our competitors are doing. This is strategy and it would be in the centre. We do technology roadmap to bring this strategy into a plan. In order to do this, we need to list out all the technology we have, the research we are doing and what we think we need in the future.

Technology Dependency Structure Matrix

The links between them would be the interdependencies in our technology roadmap. For example, a new project brings a new engine or a new control law in a particular vehicle. It can get complex but understanding it would be very beneficial to us. To make more sense of it, this information can be arranged in a matrix called Technology Dependency Structure Matrix. It can be organised by cluster and we can see which technology is grouped together. The most innovative or disruptive then become visible in clusters. There are five categories of clusters.

  1. Autonomy. This involves reducing the workload on the pilots and maybe into a single pilot cockpit or autonomous drones.
  2. Connectivity. We are making sure our vehicles do not just have classical radio communication but can become a node and relay information to each other.
  3. Electrification. Automotive industry electrification has progressed significantly compared to aerospace. The level of power in aviation is much higher compared to cars. We need about 2MW or 20MW of power to power the aircraft. 
  4. Material. Studying new kinds of materials such as carbon nanotubes composites, ceramics.
  5. Digital design and manufacturing. To design the whole aircraft and system digitally is much faster and there is no need for paper. Currently it takes about 10 years to design an aircraft. We can cut it down to 5 years with this. 2x reduction in design time is a big goal in Airbus. 

 

How do you see the future of passenger comfort?

We are focusing a lot on passenger experience. Airbus’ cabin centre in Hamburg is very innovative and they have a lot of ideas. Some ideas for reconfiguring cabin between flights: Airbus has a project in A3 called Transpose. It is a modular cabin with options like restaurant and entertainment modules. The idea is to have different zones in aircraft for different activities for the passengers to move around the cabin more and not just sitting down. However, it is challenging for two main reasons. Firstly is flight safety especially when you get into turbulence. Secondly is economics as concepts are not as efficient in terms of passenger number and therefore become unattractive to the airlines. Therefore, we need to find a good balance between passanger comfort and economics.

 

Currently, what do you think is the biggest tech challenge aerospace companies are trying to solve?

I think the biggest one is what we have been dealing with for about 30 years: fuel efficiency. Being able to fly the same distance with the same amount of people but burning much less fuel. A big step is the geared turbofan engine. We are very proud of that. We collaborated with two engine manufacturers, particularly Pratt & Whitney. This engine has improved fuel efficiency by 15% and we would like to go further. The main mechanism is to have higher bypass ratio and at some point, we are reaching a limit on engine size. The next step would be distributed propulsion where multiple fans are distributed on the aircraft and driven from a single engine core. Electric propulsion is also an important frontier for us. We will see a very different aircraft from the classic configuration we have now.

 

Airbus has this BLADE demonstrator to research into laminar flow on a wing. How do you think the technology demonstrated which is laminar flow would improve flying in the future? 

We are using an A340 aircraft and the outer wings are treated for laminar flow condition. The two sides are not symmetric and not treated the same so we can compare the effect of two different treatments. There are cameras to observe the flow over those regions. We had done over 20 flight tests in different conditions. Getting laminar flow means we delay the separation point on the wing where we would have the turbulent flow (turbulent flow gives extra drag to the aircraft and therefore less efficient). We are quantifying how much laminarity we can achieve under flight conditions and what is the net benefit we achieve for the aircraft drag. We found out that it works better on one side than the other. Small imperfections such as bugs or scratches can impact the performance (laminar flow needs an extremely smooth surface). Therefore, manufacturing tolerances and surface treatment needs to be much better than it is currently. We have to weigh the cost of achieving laminar flow against the net benefit to our customers get in terms of drag reductions (therefore fuel savings to airlines). The BLADE would finish testing in 2018.

Airbus BLADE laminar flow demonstrator (Photo: Airbus)

 

Back to passenger experience, we are seeing longer flights increasing, for example with Singapore Airlines restarting direct US flights in the near future. What technology do you think will improve passenger comfort in these long flights?

There are a few aspects into the problem. The first one would be the absolute must have today: high-quality internet connection in flight. We have satellite internet available on aircraft. But it has room for improvement in terms of bandwidth, quality of service, and cost – which are important. I can tell you that we are working on improving internet for passengers. It is a very active area of research.

The second area is seat design and ergonomics. We also look into passenger behaviour on these long flights. How often do they get off their seats and move around? We look into the layout of the aircraft. A lot of these are thought about in Airbus but in the end, it is the customers who decide as the layout will have an impact on their economy. Airbus works very closely with our airline customers for the cabin design.

The third area is the environmental control system. Air quality onboard is important. One area of concern is the air getting quite dry inflight. We get a lot of feedback regarding this problem from flight attendants. They get very dry eyes on long flights. Adding more moisture in the air while keeping the air clean is something that we work on.

Is there one thing that customers should look forward to in the next five years?

I think it is the availability of low cost carriers (LCC). LCC has been a phenomenon in the past 10 years. The younger generation is very lucky they can travel to other cities very cheaply. The fact that an airline can be successful while providing services at such low cost is due to the fact that aircrafts today are very efficient. I would encourage people to take advantage of flying cheaply. My mother told me that there are two things that you should not be afraid to spend money on: education and travel. This is because nobody can take education and travel experience away from you.

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