The relationship between aviation and the environment is one of the key challenges facing developed societies. Air traffic is doubling every 15 years and in a report by the industry-led Energy Transitions Commission in January 2019, aviation was listed as one of the five most difficult sectors to de-carbonise.

Aviation’s impact on the environment ranges from contributing to climate change to local issues around airports such as air and noise pollution. Major reductions in carbon emissions are required to meet environmental targets set by the European Union and cuts sought in the Paris Agreement. 

The Government’s recent announcement that it intends for the UK to eradicate its net contribution to climate change by 2050 is a very welcome step. The target is rational and achievable and would mean reducing emissions by 3% a year (of current levels) for the next 30 years.

For success, reducing reliance on fossil fuels is critical and major technological advances are required in a number of areas, including biofuels, synthetic fuels, hydrogen and electrification.

Technology development will be central to this initiative, but it will also be important to develop methodologies which can assess the overall system impact, including economic and environmental factors, as well as how quickly such technologies can be introduced. The web of connections between aviation and society is complex and a systems approach is required to ensure a cost- and environment-effective transition to sustainable growth in the aviation sector. 

Cranfield’s global research airport and our Urban Observatory are leading the way in developing interconnected approaches to aircraft electrification, digital aviation and environmental monitoring and mitigation. From the environmental work we are doing around atmospheric monitoring and noise pollution with specialist sensors on our runway, investigating business models for airlines of the future, or looking at how airports can be powered in a sustainable way with our on-site solar farm, Cranfield is working to meet environmental targets and provide a sustainable future for aviation.

The Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM) – a specially modified research aircraft dedicated to the advancement of atmospheric science and the largest of its type in Europe – run by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), is also based at Cranfield.

Aircraft electrification

Our Aircraft electrification brochure and insert outline our expertise in aircraft electrification and urban air mobility.

Aircraft electrification is a necessary step towards achieving sustainable aviation and tackling climate change.

As the only university in Europe with its own airport, aircraft and air navigation service provider, Cranfield offers a unique spectrum of relevant capabilities, expertise and facilities for the development of aircraft electrification and the aviation ecosystem. This includes the relevant approvals to design, build and fly a whole new aircraft concept. 

Challenges in electrification include thermal management, systems design for integration into the airframe, battery management, power-to-weight ratios, testing, reliability and certification of new aircraft technology.

Aircraft electrification will not succeed without parallel development in airport infrastructure, power supply and distribution, and assessment of the impact of aviation on the environment. 

With Cranfield’s global research airport and airside solar power farm, our £67 million Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC), and our fully instrumented autonomous vehicle test road (MUEAVI) alongside the airport perimeter, we provide a testbed for this transformative future technology.