Observations from the Farnborough Air show – where is aviation heading?

Blog Experience

In July I attended the Farnborough Air Show for the first time as a trade visitor. My previous visit was as a teenager in the early 2000s for the weekend public show, where I remember being mesmerised by the British Aerospace Harrier – the famous jump jet – and its ability to hover and (at the end of its display) bow to its audience.

Ever since the first powered flight in 1903 by the Wright brothers, innovation in aviation has moved quickly. Only 36 years later, the first flight powered by a turbojet took place and in 1947 the first human flew supersonic in the Bell X-1.

So where is aviation heading now? Aviation is exciting – it connects us with people and places and we see the world from above. But more than ever we need aviation to be sustainable. Jet engines are so much more efficient than they were in the early ages of jet travel, but they still produce carbon dioxide: indeed, the aviation industry is responsible for over 2% of global emissions of CO2. At Farnborough I talked to an aircraft engine manufacturer designing a hydrogen cell propellor powered engine, where the emissions will be water vapour rather than CO2. I am not qualified to comment on the likelihood of success (I am a lawyer not a scientist!) but I am heartened that so much investment is going into developing completely new aero engines. Of course, to power aircraft on the scale required will require huge investment in the manufacturing and supply infrastructure of such fuel sources.

And how about electric aircraft? I saw prototypes and mock-ups of electric flying machines (helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and something that falls half between), all aimed at short range trips. If batteries can hold enough power (and be charged up sufficiently quickly), then why shouldn’t one use an electric aircraft for short hops over the traffic? For those involved in private aviation, we all know that the main reason people use helicopters is to save time.

And how about pilotless aircraft, which some manufacturers are building? I love the idea…but who will legally be the captain of the aircraft? And if these are to become air taxis, which one hails (via an app, of course), will they need to create low altitude airways (yet more controlled airspace)? How will they communicate with air traffic control? And given that we do not yet see driver-less cars, will the public be accepting of mass-produced flying drones? With every possible solution comes a myriad of practical, technical and legal questions.

Huge orders are being placed for some of these new flying machines – subject to regulatory approval, of course. The purchase agreements will, I am sure, differ from those our clients sign with, say, Gulfstream or Bombardier. Does the manufacturer ask for a deposit up front? What if it never gets off the ground (pun intended)? How will the customers get their money back? How can the purchasers be sure they will be refunded? Or are the manufacturers simply signing non-binding letters of intent?

And how about investing in one of these projects? There are potentially huge returns if you back the right horse. One of the most interesting conversations I had at Farnborough was with a university academic, who warned that some will never reach certification and mass-production. So aside from taking legal advice on your investment, always get an independent expert’s view of the technology (and don’t necessarily believe everything you are told by the manufacturer!). Aerion’s recent liquidation after 17 years of trying to develop a supersonic private jet (without ever managing to build even a prototype) serves as a reminder that not all dreams make it to reality.

But watch this space!