The emergence of “new competitors in very powerful places around the world” has led Airbus to pursue new technologies as a way to differentiate itself, according to strategy and future-programs executive vice president Christian Scherer. For instance, despite the tough economic times, the European airframer is investing around $2.5 billion in environmental research-and-development work this year alone.
Contributing to this up-front spending is the saving Airbus has made by launching the A320neo, which has “bought a lot of time and money to research properly, instead of running around like a headless chicken,” said Scherer. This would provide an opportunity for Airbus to distance itself from what he characterized as new-generation “wannabes” that have made “the major mistake of bringing nothing new to theparty.” The A320neo move could save perhaps $9 billion in short-term expenditure, while keeping A320 operating costs a step ahead of aspiring marketentrants.
Current technologies in which Airbus is engaged include biofuels, composite materials, sharklet wingtips and bionic structures. Scherer also identified a range of solutions with potential: materials management, upgrades, airport operations, connectivity, training and air-traffic management.
Airbus has established a business development “nursery” to incubate ideas that can be harvested as future businesses, of which just one example is the manufacturer’s runway-overrun prevention system (ROPS). This would contribute to reduced aviation insurance claims, since “landing excursions are the number one source of claims.” The manufacturer said ROPS options for all aircraft models are “nearly certificated.”
Another example of Airbus innovation is the Elise system of advanced instrument-landing system simulation that could indicate electromagnetic or other signal disturbance generated by buildings or temporary structures. Elise could “almost calibrate” the potential interference from objects and therefore might be able to permit, say, building development nearer to runways.
Scherer said he could imagine the evolution of pilots from “drivers to machine-tool manager,” and that the next Airbus aircraft would have “a very different cockpit.” Part of the future would be the emergence of “rupture” technologies that would set new standards, Scherer said, adding that he expects Airbus to bring a new standard of cockpit commonality to the market.
Future aircraft configurations could include high, rear-mounted engines driving contrarotating open rotors, according to research and technology senior vice president Axel Krein. Airbus is working with engine manufacturers Rolls-Royce and Safran. They have tested a wind-tunnel model and could operate A340 test-bed flights during 2014-16, ahead of a possible A320-replacement launch before 2020, said Krein. Airbus is also considering fuel cells to replace auxiliary power units and ram-air turbines as supplementary or replacement powersources.
“It would be irresponsible not to fly [such technologies] in the next five years,” Scherer concluded. “[Open-rotor technology] is the number-one chance to reduce fuel burn until there ispropulsionmore efficient than thepropeller.”