The Future of Flight

Rob Watson, Director of Rolls-Royce Electrical

Rolls-Royce has been pioneering flight for more than 100 years. We created the first turboprop, the first jet engine, powered the first jet engine passenger airliner, and powered the first and only commercial supersonic jet – The Concorde.


We’ve crafted seven variations of our world-leading aero engine family since the launch of our first Trent engine over two decades ago. Each variation has continued to push the boundaries of what is possible, setting new performance benchmarks for civil aviation and collectively earning more than 130 million flying hours.


The gas turbine remains essential to Rolls-Royce’s future – for example, the Trent XWB, which powers the Airbus A350, is the most efficient aero engine ever created and will be flying for decades. We are taking this proven technology through another evolutionary step with our new UltraFan demonstrator programme. The UltraFan aims to be 25% more fuel-efficient than our first Trent engine, with a bypass ratio treble that of the Trent 700. Several technologies such as the new Advance3 core, composite fan system and power gearbox have been successfully tested and are now being brought together to form the first UltraFan demonstrator engine, which will start ground testing in 2021. We have always pursued ever cleaner, safer and more competitive power, investing on average £1.4billion each year on research and development.


Rolls-Royce is embracing sustainability with an environmental strategy for aviation that has three strands: increasingly fuel-efficient products, encouraging the development of environmentally friendly and sustainable aviation fuels, and pursuing the electrification of aviation.


Electrification will play an increasing role in propelling smaller aircraft and in enabling new approaches to large aircraft efficiency. Regional hybrid aviation is set to revolutionise intercity mobility by 2030. It is possible that we will see a new type of regional air transport becoming quieter and more fuel-efficient, which will bring a new approach to mass transportation. The main challenges in this type of aircraft include the technology for very high power-to-weight machines, power electronics and batteries, but we are on a trajectory to solve these issues.

For larger aircraft, the gas turbine will remain the main source of thrust as only chemical fuels can deliver the energy density required for medium to long haul flights. Because of this, sustainable aviation fuels will become the cornerstone of environmental performance in these markets. However, electrification will enable simplification of gas turbine internal design, unlock new methods of managing aircraft drag, and open new benefits to aircraft. In order to realise this exciting future, the entire aviation industry needs to coordinate with policymakers, regulators and governments internationally.


Global standards are critical to the aviation industry as products are utilised around the world. Some do already exist, but most areas need further development to accommodate new technologies and enhance efficiency. Academia and industry will also have to join efforts to develop key knowledge, technology and a successful supply chain.


Electrification is a key part of our strategy, and Rolls-Royce has acquired the electric and hybrid-electric aerospace propulsion activities of Siemens (the eAircraft business) in a move that will help accelerate that strategy. As part of this acquisition, we have welcomed around 180 specialist electrical designers and engineers who have been developing a range of all-electric and hybrid-electric propulsion solutions for the aerospace industry, complementing current electrical capability within Rolls-Royce.

Already today, small propeller aircraft used for sport and training purposes fly electrically. Due to reduced fuel consumption, training becomes more affordable; and with silently and sustainably propelled aircraft, small airports gain better acceptance in their neighbourhoods.


In addition, pilots, plane operators and infrastructure providers can learn and prepare for the specific requirements that come with electric flight. To contribute to this development, we have designed propulsion systems in the power range of up to 260 kW and equip customer aircraft prototypes such as the Bye Aerospace eFlyer 2, the Flight Design F2e, the Texas Aircraft Colt or the Smartflyer SFX-1 with our motors, inverters and control system prototypes. It is expected that this market will achieve maturity in the next couple of years and we are preparing to serve it with certified products.


We also have an additional, completely new market in sight: eVTOLs (electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles), or so-called air-taxis that transport people individually within or between cities, could be a new addition to urban mobility in the future. Multiple concepts of such helicopter-like air vehicles have been presented in the past few years by both small start-ups and big companies in the aerospace industry. First demonstrators and prototypes are being tested all around the world. Those vertically taking-off and landing vehicles pose specific challenges to the hybrid or fully electric propulsion systems. To understand these specific requirements, we have partnered with Airbus and designed a system of motors, inverters and energy distribution systems for their “CityAirbus”. The demonstrator of this 4-seat, autonomous air taxi concept had its first free flight just before Christmas 2019, a great milestone for the industry and us.


We recently announced that Rolls-Royce will be working with APUS, an aviation engineering company based in Strausberg, close to Berlin, and the Brandenburg University of Technology (BTU), Cottbus, in developing a hybrid electric flight demonstrator based on our hybrid M250 propulsion system. The collaboration will enable one of the world’s most comprehensive hybrid aerospace turbine engine development and integration programmes and pave the way for experimental flights on aircraft after 2021. This project will include an APUS i-5 plane to demonstrate the practical application of hybrid electric technology for a 4000kg conventional take-off and landing flight test vehicle. The system could be used across a range of transport platforms to enable distributed electric propulsion, including eVTOLs, general aviation aircraft and hybrid helicopters in the future.


We are also partnering with Airbus on the hybrid-electric technology flight demonstrator, E-Fan X, which is due to take to the skies in 2021. Launched in November 2017, the E-Fan X is a 100-seater size demonstrator with a 2MW Electric Propulsion Unit in place of one of the four existing engines. The Rolls-Royce 2.5MW flying generator will be the most powerful of its type in the world.


Our ambitions to build the world’s fastest all-electric aircraft also took an important step forward in December 2019 when we unveiled the plane at Gloucestershire Airport. Work has now started on integrating the groundbreaking electrical propulsion system to enable the zero-emissions single-seater plane to make a run for the record books with a target speed of 300+ MPH (480+ KMH) in late Spring 2020.


This plane is part of a Rolls-Royce initiative called ACCEL – short for “Accelerating the Electrification of Flight” ­– and is a key part of Rolls-Royce’s strategy to champion electrification.

The project involves a host of partners including electric motor and controller manufacturer YASA and the aviation start-up Electroflight. Half of the project’s funding is provided by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), in partnership with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK.


Thanks to close collaboration in integration projects with manufacturers of innovative aircraft concepts and partners like Airbus, we can understand the aircraft manufacturers’ different needs and create solutions. Aircraft and propulsion system design must go hand in hand. Learning jointly with our partners and customers will pave the way to the most efficient and sustainable aircraft of the future.

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