Industry executives assembling from around the globe for the 2042 Singapore Airshow will quite likely arrive on a hydrogen-powered airliner and then complete the last leg of their journey in a routine eVTOL air taxi service. That was the closing conclusion of a webinar staged in late January to discuss the Asia-Pacific region’s position as a fulcrum for new aerospace technology, organized by show organizer Experia.
The prediction came from Airbus Asia-Pacific president Anand Stanley, who confirmed that the European airframer is committed to introducing a hydrogen aircraft into commercial service in 2035, following an anticipated program launch in 2025. He also made a pitch for the four-seat CityAirbus NextGen eVTOL aircraft, launched last year and scheduled for service entry in 2025.
However, Airbus certainly won't enjoy a clear run at the much-hyped, and very crowded, eVTOL sector. Germany’s Volocopter and Embraer subsidiary Eve Urban Air Mobility also participated in the Asia-Pacific: a hub for tomorrow’s technologies webinar, and both confirmed that they view Singapore and many other cities across the region as prime early adopters for a new approach to local public transportation, which they say will decongest roads while cutting carbon emissions.
The air transport industry’s seemingly inescapable imperative to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050 will take a multi-pronged approach that won’t stand or fall on electric propulsion alone. GE Aviation engineering general manager Vikram Reddy pointed to the further potential for improving the energy efficiency of the much-maligned turbofan. He explained that the engine maker is accelerating its work on open fan designs to get more propulsion efficiency using lightweight materials, such as composite blades and improved gearboxes and transmissions from its partners Avio and Safran.
“Moving into the engine core, which runs hot, we need to invent more new materials to get even more thermal efficiency,” Reddy explained. “There is also plenty more to be achieved with sustainable aviation fuels after [the GE-Safran partnership] CFM International last year flew an aircraft for the first time with a 100 percent blend of SAF.”
Stanley endorsed the multi-path approach to "greening" aviation. While Airbus views battery-electric propulsion as suitable for its small, short-range CityAirbus eVTOL, it is now convinced that hydrogen represents the only option for true decarbonization that can work on a larger scale and for longer flights. Solar power is in the mix too, and the company plans to apply that energy source for its Zephyr high-altitude aircraft designed for prolonged surveillance missions. He told the webinar audience that if their 2042 journey to Singapore extends longer than the 2,500 nm range anticipated for its hydrogen airliner, they will have the option of arriving in a SAF- or synthetic fuel-powered A350 long-haul widebody.
“For Volocopter, Singapore is a lighthouse market into Southeast Asia and the broader Asia Pacific region,” said the German company’s head of Singapore and business development, Hon Lung Chu.
In October 2019, Volocopter publicly demonstrated its VC200 eVTOL prototype in Singapore’s Marina Bay district. During that event and at the February 2020 Singapore Airshow, it conducted market research to gauge the appetite of consumers for urban air mobility. “This found that 72 percent of the public expressed an interest [in using eVTOL aircraft], and especially among younger and higher-income people,” he reported. “We believe it will take 20 or 30 years to achieve a step-change [in air transport] but we need to consider a change in operating environment for smaller aircraft at lower altitudes [below 3,000 feet], and digitization will be a key part of this.”
Eve chief executive Andre Stein said that the new technology will deliver a much more integrated approach to transportation that he described as “an internet of mobility.” The company, which is in the process of pursuing a Wall Street share flotation, continues work on a four-passenger eVTOL aircraft. “Travel needs to be much more integrated so that you can seamlessly go from Jurong [a Singapore neighborhood] to the center of London, in a way that is sustainable and accessible in a way we haven’t yet seen,” he said, explaining that Eve’s plans call for a complete ecosystem to include unmanned air traffic management technology to ensure that the new aircraft can safely operate.
Meanwhile, significant elements of new aviation technology are being home-grown in Singapore. Jeffrey Lam, ST Engineering’s president for commercial aerospace services, told the webinar that the group is stepping up its involvement with uncrewed aircraft for missions such as surveillance and deliveries to ships docked off the coast. The group is also working to reduce carbon footprints through measures such as installing solar panels on all of its hangars and other buildings to lap up the country’s equatorial sunshine.
The aerostructures manufacturer is working on new lighter, stronger, and more acoustically optimized aircraft nacelles. Meanwhile, in its work as a maintenance, repair, and overhaul provider, it is looking to recycle aviation assets through programs such as converting A320 narrowbody airliners from passenger to freight applications in partnership with Airbus.
“Singapore is a true melting pot for innovation,” Lam concluded. “We have the right research and development resources, finance, talent, and infrastructure, plus established aerospace partnerships all in one location and strong government support and universities. So there is a compelling case for companies looking to make breakthroughs to come and work here.”