What will be the policy impacts of new aviation technologies?

The Occasion

Aviation is likely to be transformed over the next 30 years by a range of innovative technologies, including unmanned aerial vehicles, new forms of propulsion, and airspace management systems. Yet while much attention has been given to the nature of these technologies, questions remain about their impact on policy making. How should policy makers incorporate these technologies into their long-term planning? How far will new tech help achieve wider policy objectives, such as the net-zero carbon goal? And what steps should policy makers be taking now to ensure that the adoption of new technologies runs safely and smoothly?

The ITC has teamed up with the CAA to commission a major research project on these issues, and to debate this topic we were very pleased to welcome a distinguished panel of experts at our digital Summer Discussion Event held on 14th July 2021. The discussion was chaired by ITC Commissioner and leader of the ITC’s aviation workstream Dr Stephen Hickey, and the expert panel also included: Gary Cutts, Director of the UKRI’s Future Flight programme; Matt Gorman MBE, Carbon Reduction Manager at Heathrow Airport; and David Tait, Head of Innovation at the Civil Aviation Authority. An introduction to the ITC/CAA research study was provided by project researchers Chris Cain and Basil O’Fee from Northpoint Aviation.


What will be the policy impacts of new aviation technologies? Key issues from the speakers:

  • Gary Cutts provided an overview of the technological advances transforming aviation. He reported that the Future Flight programme had been funded by UKRI in order to help aviation stakeholders develop new technologies. This provided opportunities not only for ensuring a sustainable, low-carbon future for aviation, but also opened the possibility of using aerial vehicles to provide new services, such as emergency services support, rapid airport transfer, cargo deliveries and inter-town transit. The policy challenges arising from these new technologies were complex, and especially so in urban areas where new aerial vehicles would operate in crowded spaces. This called for a new airspace management system, he suggested, and aviation needed to be part of a pan-transport integrated plan. Furthermore, he pointed to the possibilities these technologies offered for helping aviation earn its ‘social licence’ and generate a stronger degree of public acceptability.
  • Matt Gorman offered a perspective from the UK’s biggest airport on aviation technologies. He observed that the greatest challenge facing Heathrow was removing its carbon footprint, but new technologies provided cause for optimism. He pointed out that 95% of Heathrow’s carbon footprint came from aircraft, and this could be reduced through using less fuel as a result of more efficient planes, the use of electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft for short-haul operations, and a move towards sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). He called on policy makers to help make SAFs more economically viable, through tax-based price incentives and the stimulation of supply through an escalating fuel mandate and investment in production. By mandating that the UK produced 10% of its SAF needs, the creation of this industry could, he suggested, generate 30,000 jobs and add £4 billion of economic growth to regional economies. Heathrow was also supporting research into electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, in order to understand the commercial models, infrastructure needs, and policy issues associated with these. These technologies offered great potential for short-haul flight, he noted, and initial services for narrow-bodied aircraft could happen within the next 10-15 years. He pointed out that Airbus, Zero Avia, and Electric Aviation Group were looking at developing hydrogen and electric-powered aircraft over this timescale with ranges of up to 2000 nautical miles and capacity for 100-200 seats.
  • David Tait gave insights into the policy and regulatory challenges posed by new technologies. He explained that the rapid pace of technological development, as well as policy objectives such as zero carbon and recovery after the Covid19 pandemic, was continuing to encourage the CAA to create new regulatory approaches to these challenges. He advised that taking a ‘system of systems’ view was essential as was the need to be nimble in responding to new tech. The CAA’s establishment of  its Innovation Hub, to create an environment where innovation could flourish, is one aspect that is supporting this. The work of the Hub includes a gateway for innovators, a regulatory lab to develop longer-term vision and share guidance, and a sandbox to maximise regulatory readiness for new innovations. The gathering of intelligence on aviation innovations was an important part of this, he added, and had opened a range of questions to consider. These included how to achieve safe operation of emerging technologies, how to approach certification, how to integrate and manage increasingly diverse airspace users, and how a social licence could be obtained for aviation.

Key themes raised in the Q&A discussion:

The discussion was chaired by Dr Stephen Hickey, Chair of the ITC’s aviation working group.

  1. What will be the impacts of the Covid19 pandemic on the progress of new technologies? A key discussion question was whether the Covid19 pandemic had permanently changed aviation needs as a result of shifting demand patterns. Some believed that demand would largely recover, but others noted that there was considerable uncertainty over the shape of future aviation demand and trends would need to be watched carefully. It was agreed that the pandemic had accelerated action towards the decarbonisation of aviation, and technologies that enabled lower carbon flight had been boosted. In the longer term, alternative forms of propulsion would help to achieve this, but in the meantime a rapid acceleration towards Sustainable Aviation Fuels would be important. There was widespread acceptance that the pandemic had demonstrated the importance of new technologies and there was an opportunity to expand research and innovation in the industry.
  2. How will new technologies work in densely populated urban areas? Some participants questioned how new aviation technologies would operate, especially in the crowded airspace of cities, where an accident could be especially serious. It was acknowledged that this was a difficult area for local authorities and safety issues would need to be resolved at a national level. New policies for the certification of aerial craft, fresh safety measures and the use of technologies to manage complex airspace issues would be crucial. One suggestion was that zoning of airspace should be considered, and this was an issue which deserved more attention from policy makers. Participants acknowledged that safety was a paramount issue if new technologies were to earn public acceptability.
  3. What will encourage more investment in new technologies? New aviation technologies often required high levels of investment, it was noted, and the commercial viability of these innovations would be crucial. Others pointed out that climate change risks and carbon reduction were now a core aspect of investment assessment. To encourage sustainable technologies it was suggested that Government incentives would be needed to accelerate innovation, as had happened with electric vehicles. One view was that both incentives and taxes would be needed to change behaviours and global co-ordination was preferable. At the same time, others noted that market forces were powerful mechanisms and commercially viable technologies would have an advantage. Encouragingly, investment had been flowing to new innovations, such as EVTOL manufacturers.
  4. Could new aviation technologies be transformative for rural and remote places? Some attendees observed that new aviation technologies could be a game changer for remote communities. Aviation could serve such places when ferries were unreliable or in situations where building road tunnels and bridges was too expensive, as well as providing cargo deliveries. It was noted that the pandemic had seen aviation in the form of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) used to provide medical services to Scottish islands and to help with delivering rapid testing and vaccination. However, local authorities would need to recognise this potential and seize the various opportunities that new aviation technologies provided.
  5. What will the future of flight look like 30 years hence? A key question was how new technologies would reshape the aviation sector and the experience of flying by 2050. Some suggested that all aspects of flying would be transformed, with aviation having a greater role in underpinning public services as well as in logistics and deliveries. Others proposed that the overall experience of flying would not feel so different, even if the technology powering aircraft was new. Journeys to-and-from the airport were likely to be different, with the prospect of a seamless and smoother end-to-end journey experience. Flights could become a little more expensive, although all hoped that good progress would have been made towards sustainable and low-carbon journeys.