Airbus concept plane / CREDIT: Airbus
Greg Clark announces £343m government and industry-backed aviation research and development drive, including £58m for pioneering electric flight initiative
Weeks after controversially backing plans to expand Heathrow, the government has today unveiled a major new R&D programme designed to curb carbon emissions across the aviation sector and usher in a new era of electric flight.
Speaking at the Farnborough Air Show today, Business Secretary Greg Clark announced £343m of government and industry-backed funding is to be invested in a wide range of new research programmes, including a number of projects designed to slash the environmental impact of new planes.
Around £255m of funding from the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) and UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) has been earmarked for 18 new projects, including £58m for a flagship electrification project and a £70m for a new project designed to “set new benchmarks in fuel efficiency, CO2 reductions and significant cut backs in engine noise”.
“The UK has a rich heritage in civil aviation as the home of the jet engine and the wings factory of the world,” Clark said. “Technology is driving revolutionary changes in aviation that have not been seen since the 1970s and today’s investment is foundational to the future of commercial aviation and ensuring the UK remains at the cutting-edge of the sector. This revolution in civil aerospace will bring significant benefits to UK industry, passengers and the environment.”
His comments were echoed by Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg, who predicted that the “development of quicker, quieter and cleaner aircraft will transform the UK’s transport market and open up new and more sustainable ways for passengers to travel between our cities and regions and across the globe”.
The new funding is intended as a fore-runner for the government’s wider Aviation Strategy and a new Aviation Industry Sector Deal. Clark today confirmed negotiations with industry on the content of the deal have begun with a view to completing discussions before the end of the year.
The most eye-catching funding pledge will see £58m provided to the E-FAN X project from Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens, which aims to develop a flight demonstrator for hybrid-electric propulsion for commercial aircraft.
The project was announced last year and is one of a number of initiatives across the industry vying to make electric flight a commercially viable reality. Most notably, EasyJet has set a target to begin operating electric routes within 10 years and Norway has proposed making all short haul flights electric by 2040.
Separately, £70m has today been awarded to Rolls Royce in support of the UltraFan and ACCEL projects, which aim to drastically improve aircraft efficiency, and a series of projects aimed at developing new light weight composite materials and fuel saving aerodynamic improvements have also secured funding.
The moves come just weeks after the government faced fierce criticism from environmental campaigners for backing the development of a third runway at Heathrow. Ministers argued that the expansion would not lead to further breaches of the UK’s air quality and carbon targets. But campaigners said the assurances were based on unrealistic assumptions about the pace at which more efficient aviation technologies could be developed and deployed.
The Committee on Climate Change also warned the UK’s carbon budgets could be put at risk without rapid improvements in aviation fuel efficiency and changes to the policy environment.
Speaking at the Farnborough Air Show, Prime Minister Theresa May said the development of greener aviation technologies would both deliver environmental benefits and provide the UK with a competitive boost post-Brexit.
“Other countries around the world are racing to develop their industries – and respond to the demand for cleaner, greener aircraft and technological advances such as automation, and unmanned air systems,” she said. “Along with industry we are jointly providing £343 million pounds of investment for research and development projects and to boost productivity. From developing the most technologically advanced aircraft, creating newer more efficient engines, to the manufacture of cleaner, quieter aircraft that will help cut emissions – this funding will support some of the most innovative projects being advanced today.”
She also argued that the government’s new Brexit negotiating strategy would minimise risks for the aerospace sector.
“We know from our discussions with you, and other industries, how friction at the border would not just jeopardise the uniquely integrated supply chains and just-in-time processes on which millions of jobs and livelihoods depend – but how divergence in regulations could result in complex and expensive multiple tests for different markets,” she said. “Companies such as Rolls Royce export 80 per cent of their products. Parts for other products – such as Airbus wings – can have multiple journeys before finally being assembled and sold around the world.
“We know too just how vital precision engineering is in aerospace – where the ‘error’ rate for parts and their performance must be practically zero – and that it is the harmonisation of regulatory standards that has been such an important factor in air safety and the astonishing reduction of deaths on commercial flights.”
In addition May stressed that alongside the creation of a new UK-EU free trade area for goods, the government would seek continuity for businesses engagement with a raft of EU agencies.
“We will also, as I set out in my Mansion House speech, explore with the EU on what terms the UK could remain part of EU agencies such as those that are critical for the aerospace chemicals and medicines industries: the European Aviation Safety Agency, the European Chemicals Agency, and the European Medicines Agency,” she said.