Airbus Vice-President discusses ideas for the aviation of tomorrow

© AIRBUS S.A.S. 2012 – photo by e*m company / H.GOUSSÉ; Charles Champion, Airbus Executive Vice-President for Engineering and Fly Your Ideas Patron

On Friday 14 June 2013, this year’s winner of the Airbus Fly Your Ideas competition will be announced from among five finalists, at an award ceremony beginning at 4pm at UNESCO headquarters in Paris (Room IV).

The competition challenges students worldwide to develop ideas for a greener aviation industry. This third edition of the competition, which has been granted UNESCO patronage, attracted more than 600 teams.

In the following interview, Charles Champion, Airbus Executive Vice-President for Engineering and Fly Your Ideas Patron, presents the five finalists and explains why their ideas are so important for the future of the aviation industry.


  • Q1 - What motivated Airbus to launch the Fly Your Ideas competition?

Attracting talent towards aviation to ensure sustainable growth. When you look at the steps made in the aviation industry to improve performance over the past 40 years it is incredible. Now we are entering the next chapter, with the ambitious goal to be carbon neutral by 2020. That’s going to take fresh ideas from a new generation of innovators.

Yet while we continue to attract the best talent around, there are not enough engineers currently graduating to meet the aviation industry’s needs. Nearly half of them switch to other careers once they qualify. Those with other skills, such as in information technology, also look elsewhere.

One point is clear. We need to improve the appeal of subjects like engineering – and careers in the aerospace sector in general – to students, and likewise their relevance to employers, so that they can succeed in the real world, in a rapidly evolving world.

That’s what Airbus Fly Your Ideas is about and also why UNESCO is backing the initiative.

With this competition we want to stimulate and better equip a growing and more diverse community of talent who can rise to the challenges and opportunities of tomorrow’s world.

  • Q2 - What appealed to Airbus in the project ideas of this year’s winning team and four finalists?

What would you say if I told you that tomorrow there will be planes powered by body heat, even running on ‘cow power’ from methane gas, and with luggage floating on a bed of air? That’s not something you hear every day!

It’s enough to capture anyone’s imagination I think. People want and need to fly – air travel is the real World Wide Web if you like – and we all share a fascination with what the future of flight will look like.

At Airbus there is an element of future-gazing built into our day job. But the ideas above haven’t come from our team of experts, or network of innovation cells. They’ve come from students, Fly Your Ideas finalists. And we’re just as interested as anyone.

It’s actually quite amazing when you think about it. This is not an easy competition, with three progressively challenging rounds over the course of a year, and whilst their own academic studies continue apace.

In some ways I guess that is somewhat self-selecting. To get this far takes more than ideas and youthful enthusiasm. What you see are people who are genuinely motivated by a sense of the future. Those who share our passion for shaping tomorrow’s world. Those who also develop their ability to build on diversity and teamwork.

And though the idea that cows could provide the fuel to fly you from London to New York – or that noise reduction could be achieved through shape-shifting engines – may seem far-fetched, the existence of these concepts might be not too far away at all.

That’s the point. What we look for are ideas that push boundaries; disruptive concepts that challenge the status quo; yet ones which are more than flights of fancy.

This is what all these finalists have in common – they are brave enough to challenge people to revaluate the way things are done: “Why does it have to be like that? What if we do it like this?” And they have shown, in principle at least, that there are tangible benefits – for the industry, for the passenger, and for the planet – in doing it differently.

Let’s take the idea from Team Levar from Brazil about luggage floating on air. Here are students who’ve said, “Hey, why not take the principles of air hockey and fit the cargo hold with superlight, sliding sections so that workers can load and unload luggage easier and faster?” We’re talking about an idea that would allow passengers to get their bags back 30% faster, which means people like you and me can get to where we’re heading quicker and make the most of our holiday.

Then there’s Team CLiMA from Australia who see planes powered by ‘cow power’. It sounds complex, a sustainable fuel solution which puts liquefied methane to use in specially-created supercooled pods that sit next to the engines. But the numbers make sense to anyone: an estimated reduction in CO2 emissions by a staggering 97%.

Next are Team AVAS from India who propose shape shifting materials that help reduce noise. In essence this is a relatively simple engine modification made from special shape-shifting materials which can change airflow through the engine and reduce noise pollution. This is something that could benefit local communities around the world.

What about battery-powered hybrid engines as put forward by Team Flybrid from Italy? Specially-shaped rechargeable batteries drop into the cargo hold, helping to power efficient hybrid engines. Only the required number of batteries are loaded dependent on mileage, optimizing the plane’s weight. On a short-haul flight, this solution could save up to 60 % of fuel, which reduces up to 40% of CO2 emissions

And last but by no means least, the idea for human body heat powering cabins submitted by Team Embarker from Malaysia. Heat energy from specially-embedded heat-sensitive materials in cabin seats could very well capture energy from passengers which could then be used for on-board electronics, reducing the energy requirements.

This competition has taught me something, too. When you ask young people to think about their future and how they might influence the world they live in, prepare to be amazed!

  • Q3 - What prize will each of these five teams win?

This is an interesting one… I’m sure that if you ask the winning team immediately after they receive their cheque for €30,000, or the runners-up holding the cheque for €15,000, that this will be the answer! But like I say, I’ve no doubt that the young people who enter the competition do so primarily for other reasons.

These are young people who want to make a difference, be that to fuel their own career prospects or the sustainable future of this exciting industry and the planet we call home. Either way, they recognise this is a rare opportunity to apply classroom learning in a real world environment – and with access to senior figures from a vital and growing industry based on innovation.

Entrants get the chance to work closely with over 200 Airbus personnel who are involved as mentors, assessors and experts. The competition develops their project management, creativity, leadership, presentation and other valuable transferrable skills. They also gain unique insight and a potentially life-changing experience in this exciting industry.

This is what we’re offering anyone who takes part. The key point is that Fly Your Ideas gives students, of any nationality or background, the opportunity to join Airbus in our vision for a more sustainable aviation industry of the future and gives them a chance to experience that adventure and grow. That, I think, is a far bigger prize.

  • Q4 - In 2009, Airbus and the winning team’s university initiated a joint project to take the idea from concept to reality. Do all winning project ideas lead to this kind of collaboration?

Not all of the ideas we receive are subjects we won’t ourselves have considered already of course. That shouldn’t come as a surprise: at Airbus we file over 500 patent applications each year and that more than 90% of our annual research and development investment of over €2 billion has environmental benefits for current and future aircraft.

But if anything that shows the calibre of the student projects – that they have identified something that our experts have already deemed worthy of consideration.

But it’s true to say that even in these cases students can show an innovative approach to looking at a particular problem or solution in a different light. And, while not all of the ideas will find their way onto Airbus aircraft or into Airbus processes, many of them to-date have been shared with specialists throughout Airbus for potential development.

Sometimes this can lead to joint projects. Take Team Stanford ADG from Stanford University in the United States. They reached the final in 2009 with their proposal on inverted V-formation flight, building on the model of migrating birds to reduce energy consumption. This led to a partnership and a collaborative research project into extended aircraft formations, which was recently completed.

I can’t go into too much detail but let’s say the results have been very interesting!

We also worked on a follow-up project with the multinational Team Coz from the University of Queensland, Australia, who won the 2009 contest with a project focused on the use of a pioneering natural fibre composite – made from castor plants – in aircraft cabins. An exploratory project is also underway with 2011 finalists Team Msia on Mars from the Universiti Kuala Lumpur Malaysian Institute of Aviation Technology.

What this shows is that Airbus Fly Your Ideas is part of our wider efforts to forge academia and inter-academia relationships that transcend geographical boundaries. We are always looking to partner and support academic research teams and identify opportunities for research development. So the potential is definitely there for the right projects. That’s incredibly exciting, for the students, for their universities, and for us!

  • Q5 - Does the university share the benefits with Airbus of the winning project?

For the 2013 competition, all rights to designs and creations from the teams will belong to their developers, giving them the opportunity to decide what to do should they want to progress their ideas further. The participants retain ownership of their relevant intellectual property.

There are other benefits for the universities, too. The university of the winning team will have the opportunity to welcome experts from the Airbus Innovation Cell on campus for a week of learning about innovation. And for all involved, this is a vehicle for better interaction between industry and academia, and a driver of innovation in the classroom.

In my opinion – and one which I know UNESCO shares – we must work together to reinvigorate young people with the fascination and excitement of engineering and other career paths in the aerospace industry. If we succeed, those attracted to science, technology, engineering and mathematics will help us deliver the solutions for the sustainable aviation industry of tomorrow. People like our Fly Your Ideas finalists. That’s what this is all about.

Interview by Susan Schneegans

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