Flying their way to the future
A trio of teams from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology are among 102 university groups from around the world competing for an Airbus prize that could net them $30,000 and a trip to Paris — and perhaps revolutionise the aviation industry in the process.
The competition, known as Fly Your Ideas, encourages teams of students to pitch plans to improve the eco-efficiency of the aviation industry and then guide their ideas through a rigorous development process. Five teams of finalists will be flown to France later this year where they will present and defend their proposals before a panel of Airbus executives and industry leaders.
“The basic idea is to engage with bright young students and get them thinking about the aeronautics industry,” said Dale King, Airbus senior manager for international research and technology partnerships, at the Avalon Airshow yesterday. “What we get out of it is perhaps some ideas of real technical benefit, but the most important thing is the opportunity to engage with the best and the brightest.”
The three teams from RMIT were among roughly 600 from across the globe to enter the competition. Those 600 were whittled down to 102 who were invited to further develop their ideas. A fourth Australian team from Adelaide University has also made it to the second round.
Two of the RMIT teams have based their proposals around the replacement of traditional jet fuel with liquid methane. Team members say liquid methane, which can be derived from natural gas, costs about a third as much as traditional jet fuel and would result in a 20 per cent reduction in carbon emissions. Since it is also much cheaper and easier to store than liquid hydrogen, they say methane could represent a practical bridging technology between today’s fuels and hydrogen or some other future source.
“This transition wouldn’t just be about saving money or helping the environment, but about opening up whole new avenues for further innovation,” said Tim Conroy, who leads a team proposing the retrofit of existing aircraft for liquid methane use. “We feel the industry is reaching its limits for optimising current aircraft designs and see liquid methane as an opportunity to start a fresh new avenue of innovation.”
The second team has developed a new aircraft design incorporating liquid methane systems. Both designs place the aircraft engines in the tail section while the retro-fit proposal replaces the current under-wing engines with pod-shaped fuel tanks.
The transition to liquid methane would, of course, carry enormous short-term costs. Team members estimate the price of re-fitting existing aircraft at roughly $20-30 million each for a single aisle jetliner. Airports would also face significant outlays. Because of that, team members say they are taking advantage of the air show to conduct a broad outreach to industry and government in order to build support for their idea. The group’s ambitions beyond the Airbus competition are evident in the wide range of invitees — including Boeing.
“We’re really looking beyond the competition to try to garner interest from the industry,” said Luke Spiteri, the leader of the second team. “Definitely if we could fuel a revolutionary change in the industry, that would be a good start for our careers.”
Though arguably less revolutionary than liquid methane, the third RMIT team’s proposal for a universal seat-back docking station for individual electronic gadgets responds to a need for innovative inflight entertainment options that is clearly felt within the industry. In addition to the docking station, the system includes a laser projector that can be used to superimpose a virtual keyboard, remote control or game pad on the seat-back tray.
“Customers are bringing their personal devices onto flights anyway, so we’re looking at a way to accommodate them while increasing functionality and helping the airlines to save weight and power consumption by removing wired [IFE] systems,” said Jarrow Sarson-Lawrence.
If any of the three reach the finals, they would not be the first from Australia to do so. A team from the University of Queensland won the inaugural competition in 2009 with a proposal to make composite aircraft parts from a bio-sourced resin. A team from Nanjing, China won the last competition in 2011 with a system of panels to collect the energy from vibrations created by departing aircraft and convert it into electricity.
“Seeing the level of enthusiasm and passion these groups bring to the competition is what really makes it worthwhile,” King said.