Editor’s Note: From time to time, The Journal of Civil Aviation Training (CAT) magazine presents Guest Commentary on important issues facing the community. The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

This commentary is offered by Professor Terry Young, Director, Dachet Consulting in Uxbridge, Greater London, UK. A former Marconi development director who modelled photonic devices and managed an Optoelectronic and Interconnection division, he has also served as professor of healthcare systems at Brunel University, leading healthcare modelling programmes, and was named a Top 50 Innovator by the Health Service Journal.

Prof. Young’s current focus is assessing the value of technology and designing engineering frameworks for planning and implementing improved services, including the operational benefits of a better-connected system.

Herewith are some of his thoughts on re-designing the aviation infrastructure using simulation.

By Dr. Terry Young

The past few weeks have thrown aviation into survival mode: gone are the overflowing terminals and lost luggage, and even the environmental protestors. Since the crisis has given us time for reflection, there are challenges that need fresh thinking.

As the UK Supreme Court rules against a third runway and Heathrow publishes that poster of the elephant in the airport, we need to talk about aviation’s mixed outlook. It is high profile, and pre-pandemic was generating 2% of global emissions. Flying is 1% more efficient each year, down from the 3% gains since the 60s, but is the only option a lobster trap – edging forward with minor efficiency gains in the face of massive growth in demand? Although lobster traps allow forward movement, they come to a dead end; the lobster goes nowhere except the pot.

The wrong view of aviation’s legacy is likewise a dead end.

Our unprecedented situation puts most things up for grabs and suspends the rules of the game. Today’s kaleidoscope is one of fragmented pressures, prospects and prototypes. Key breakthroughs are decades away; can we predict when they will actually arrive, and what they will cost, and demonstrate improvements until then? The public needs to believe in what can be achieved in the next, say, 10 years, and trust it as a harbinger of transportation transformation in the coming decades.

What can be done? And can simulation help?

Looking Back to Look Forward

Most companies overmanage their legacy and undermanage their potential. We all play to our historical strengths, pressing forward in lobster traps of our own making or in those created for us by external pressure or regulation.

How might analysing our legacy transform aviation? How close are we to choreographing a new dance between energy, information and logistics? Sustainable gains only emerge if all the connecting services can be coordinated effectively, every time, all the time.

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The first challenge is to use simulation to prove out radically different technologies, products, systems and services, but to do so using core skills connected to what we really understand. 

Just as simulators have successfully delayed the moment when pilots start to burn fuel, so simulation could push projects much, much further, before the need to build, move, or spend at scale. We could return from exploring wildly new futures with hard answers on volume, cost and footprint, and enjoy a much shorter journey from then on.

But after 60 years of successful regulation, since the Comet crashes of the 1950s, the lobster trap makes most innovations easier to present as minor amendments to existing designs. Even then, regulation, approvals, and certification are slow. The question for now is how to redesign regulation so that it retains its rigour while responding to the rate of change required in a crisis.

In the 60s, another group faced the same challenge around flying safely but came up with a radically different approach when NASA adapted an adversarial form of simulation to meet its needs. One team would define a scenario and synthesise signals from a mission while another responded and ran the mission until the exercise succeeded or crashed. Gene Kranz describes the approach in which ever-more-complicated and challenging scenarios were run to destruction, after which everyone sat down and amended or extended the doctrine.

Aviation had a minor adversarial regulatory episode when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 and flying was suspended. In the end, brinkmanship by British Airways with its long-haul flights re-opened the skies. But that was an aberration, rather than the precursor to something new. However, simulation opens a door…

Imagine a world where regulators and companies compete across simulation platforms to define and then fulfil missions, re-writing guidance, issuing approvals or refusing certification as a result. Simulation is much faster and cheaper than the present system. Could it be made as robust?

How Realistic is Simulating Futures?

Optimisation studies are traditionally bounded by assumptions about the status quo within which an answer is needed. This rules out most big changes, not least on economic grounds. However, with our old projections confounded, we are free to re-evaluate more radical options.

We do not know what status quo will emerge, so we must model that, too. One method is to decide what we would like most, model that and work backwards to where we are and then forward again to where we want to be.

This would be novel: modelling entire ecosystems to discover what products, systems and services would work best in more desirable worlds. Simulate relentlessly: passenger movements, baggage transfers, cargo, freight and courier services; ground movements; and takeoff and landing strategies. Training simulations, for instance, could estimate the carbon footprint of simulated flights and provide pilots with an intuitive feel for their flight’s impact. Organisations might even team up, sign agreements, and perhaps secure funding, all on the basis of decisions made in synthetic environments.

Let’s suspend judgement and assume that what aerospace and the military have developed over decades could be linked to strategy and operational “learning games,” the sort that so appeal to our offspring, and then be integrated with sophisticated business intelligence to build training, trading and regulatory platforms.

With these, teams might trial new airframes, or airlines or airports – or anything else. Let’s assume that lawyers could create a form of contracting that would allow organisations to protect and extract their learning as IP and perhaps even to secure commitments from one another in the real world.

What would airship services for holidaymakers, or supersonic biofueled airlines for business look like? Would airports connected by high-speed surface links repartition their runway use and shared traffic in radically more effective ways? Would airlines share and trade passengers, freight and landing slots to eliminate empty aircraft and level their loads dramatically? How would one model a design proposition, a manufacturing concern, or a travel option? How about carbon capture, energy recovery, or photovoltaics in runways? It’s hard to say now, but it would not take many iterations to work it out, since learning is fast in the world of games. In time, it should be possible to work from the technology base to global politics and trade.

The key is not about specifying a platform but the speed of adaptation. This type of open-ended thinking that converges rapidly to a viable dialogue in confidence-building stages is difficult, but not impossible.

This World is Within Reach, Especially Now

A desire to leave a smaller footprint across the clouds has long shaped European research, while the European Investment Bank has strategies to make innovation affordable. However, this crisis opens up new ways to shortcut progress toward what we have long wanted.

Who wants to sponsor a €100M prize for the first significant airframe, service or other innovation to reach the market in three years, provided it starts life in a simulation game?

We invite subject experts to offer Guest Commentary on other topics of interest. Please contact the Editor: rick.adams@halldale.com.