What is a Regional Aircraft and what are the opportunities?
The regional aircraft market continues to be a key growth sector within commercial aviation, contributing significantly to efficiencies in the airline networks and ensuring safe and seamless mobility, while respecting environmental obligations.
Regional carriers typically operate aircraft, such as regional jets and turboprops, with a seating capacity ranging from 20 to 130 seats, on short to medium-haul routes. By the end of 2015 the regional aviation world fleet comprised of about 9000 units (4350 turboprop and 4650 regional jet) representing more than 33% of the worldwide commercial fleet and performing over 40% of total commercial flights (and 25% of total flight hours).
In the recent past the annual worldwide traffic served by regional aviation exceeded 700 billion ASK (Available Seat Kilometres). Only in Europe were regional carriers able to offer more than 120 billion ASKs to passengers, with an average distance of 320 NM (about 600 km) and more than 200 million people flew on regional aircraft within the European network.
Regional aviation demonstrated its strongest traffic growth over the last two decades. In the next 20 years regional air traffic is expected to triple at an average yearly rate of 6% (compared to a 5% rate in total commercial aviation), generating a market demand of about 9000 new regional aircraft (with a market value of about € 360 billion, averaging € 18 billion per year).
The regional market is currently led by non-European players, with the exception of turboprop manufacturer ATR (a 50/50 Joint Venture between Leonardo and Airbus Group). For Europe‘s aeronautical industry there‘s a clear and urgent need to invest in developing new technologies in order to recover global leadership.
The integration of innovative and affordable technologies in future aircraft platforms is a key success factor for manufacturers as it increases the appeal and customer benefits, providing a better inflight experience for passengers. Furthermore, airlines derive significant economic advantages from operating modern aircraft which are more efficient, eco-friendly, easier and cost-efficient to manage and maintain, saving money through the reduction of operating costs.
New and improved technologies positively impact all these elements, contributing to a reduction in operating costs through lower fuel burn, reduced maintenance costs, reduced navigation and airport fees as a result of structural weight savings due to innovative aircraft configurations and the use of lighter materials.
All these benefits and economic advantages will be even more evident for regional turboprop aircraft that are typically less expensive to operate than regional jets. Technological enhancements also appeal to passengers who can enjoy a better inflight experience thanks to improved comfort and lower cabin noise levels, and this means less noise in and around airports too.
Clearly, investment in developing new technologies represents a fundamental differentiator for European aeronautic manufacturers in order to maintain or even to increase their competitive advantage against non-European players. Over the coming years, Europe‘s technological leadership will gain an increasingly relevant role and will contribute to a substantial market-share increase in the regional aircraft segment with consequent job creation.
In a future characterised by extensive use of innovative technologies, regional aviation‘s potential market will increase to more than 10,000 units over the 2025-2050 timeframe, and the market-share of a new European regional turboprop program will rise to 30-40% - doubling what it is today.
Tomorrow’s challenge, today’s call to action
Regional aircraft basic features have been the key drivers of a dedicated Integrated Technology Demonstrator (ITD) – the Green Regional Aircraft (GRA) - within the Clean Sky Joint Technological Initiative, financed and running under FP7.
Clean Sky GRA addresses the following success factors for modern regional aircraft:
- Low weight structural solutions - the scope is to contribute to the reduction of aircraft weight and simplification of structural parts, thereby lowering fuel consumption and reducing associated environmental impact
- Low external noise applied to critical items such as landing gear, doors and bays, high-lift devices and specific aircraft configurations to reduce external noise and airport nuisance. This aspect is relevant for regional aircraft because their flight departures and landings are more frequent than larger aircraft in a typical hub airport, thereby affecting airport noise emission. Also, regional aircraft are able to operate out of smaller city airports as well as airports closer to urban areas which are more sensitive to noise
- Advanced aerodynamics - including Natural Laminar Flow wing and turbulent skin-friction drag reduction techniques, and load control to increase aerodynamic efficiency in cruise and off-design conditions (such as climb and descent), thus reducing the polluting emissions
- Load Alleviation based on active control of wing movables and passive concepts (aero-elastic tailoring) in order to avoid air gusts and manoeuvre loads which may exceed given limits, so as to optimise the wing structural design for weight saving
- All electric solutions are addressed because they potentially improve the operational efficiency of onboard systems and simplify maintenance and ownership costs which are so critical for regional aircraft. In turn they contribute to reduced fuel consumption and emissions because electrical systems are more energy efficient and use less polluting materials than traditional solutions
Mission and trajectory management is important for regional aircraft because their high take-off and landing rates, relative to their slower climbing times, have a strong impact on airport traffic management issues. Simultaneously, available space and costs associated with regional aircraft are lower than with large airliners thus requiring fully compatible solutions at lower volume and cost, thus demonstrating and assessing those technologies‘ potential and performance at system level. This is done mainly by means of real scale tests both on the ground and in flight.
In Clean Sky 2 the REG IADP will raise the integration of technologies and methodologies to a further level of complexity and maturity with respect to Clean Sky 1 achievements. This will be achieved through a comprehensive set of full scale demonstrators, carefully cross-coordinated, which will be used to validate, at aircraft level, the integration of technologies for regional aircraft matured within this IADP as well as in the Airframe and Systems ITDs.
The matured technologies demonstrated in REG IADP are expected to be exploited through modifications of regional baseline aircraft configurations.
The REG IADP includes activities for the “ecolonomic” (a portmanteau of economic and ecological) structural design and manufacturing of regional aircraft which will be performed in close cooperation with the Eco-Design transversal activities of Clean Sky 2.
The strategic objectives for Regional Aircraft research and innovation
The further development and maturation of technologies pursued in Clean Sky GRA at system level requires integration and validation steps at aircraft level. The actual application of innovative technology in an aircraft as a complex product is pursued only when, as a minimum, the following conditions are met:
- Industrial feasibility is demonstrated to meet the criteria for industrial success for the aircraft manufacturing industry (e.g. competitive non-recurring and recurring costs, and a reliable and competitive supply chain).
- Interfaces and links with the associated technologies necessary to the aircraft operation are suitably resolved
- Solutions are acceptable to the market (passenger interfaces and comfort, certification and safety, maintenance processes, operating reliability and cost)
The need for a Regional IADP in Clean Sky 2 was driven by the necessity to continue addressing environmental topics and to mature the technologies that will make a real strategic change.
The challenges for Regional Aircraft
The strategic objectives for regional aircraft above are consistent with Flightpath 2050; the White Paper on Transport; and the ACARE Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA). Specifically, regional aircraft will contribute to the following challenges:
- Competitive regional aviation will help enable door-to-door journeys within a 4 hour journey time for 90% of European travellers.
- Innovative regional aircraft will reduce aviation‘s environmental impact by offering aircraft suited to the required range and capacity, thereby reducing use of overdesigned aircraft on short routes.
- Regional aircraft require little or reduced airport assistance capacity and need less runway length than larger airliners as they are designed to operate in small regional airports.
- They contribute to fast, safe and effective mobility in less populated or economically developed areas, especially where the infrastructure necessary for other transport solutions is not justified by traffic density, severe environmental consequences or high cost.
- Regional aircraft provide a tangible positive contribution to European export and worldwide leadership in the sector.
- Reduction of rational life cycle cost based on an innovative design in which co-simulation of manufacturing, assembly and maintenance is integrated.
Role of the Regional Aircraft IADP
The role of an innovative aircraft development platform dedicated to regional aircraft is to validate the integration of technologies at a further level of complexity than Clean Sky GRA, thereby drastically de-risking their integration into future products. In fact, European regional aircraft will integrate many different technologies and requirements in a product which shall be highly competitive in terms of performance, prevailing over several international players in this market segment.
The regional aircraft market is today shared between European - and several non-EU -aircraft manufacturers. While each aircraft integrator is marketing very advanced and efficient aircraft and is aiming to capture market share, non-EU regional aircraft manufacturers are advantaged by substantial national support for technology development. EU regional aircraft manufacturers need equivalent support to protect against the loss of the positive momentum they are experiencing and which is contributing towards recovering the ground lost in recent years.
Moreover, as has happened in the past, other industrial sectors such as the automotive, rail transportation, shipbuilding and construction industries could benefit from the potential applications of specific breakthrough technologies developed for the aeronautic sector (new materials, engineering solutions, innovative systems, greener and cheaper production processes), thereby creating a ‘virtuous circle’ for the development of the European economy and the creation of jobs.
The REG IADP demonstrators will be built by integrating several advanced technologies and solutions:
- those from Clean Sky Green Regional Aircraft and other ITDs;
- those to be matured in the frame of Clean Sky 2 Airframe, Systems ITDs;
- those matured through other relevant technology developments of FP7;
- those to be matured in other relevant H2020 projects;
- national projects and company internal projects.
Moreover, in Clean Sky 2, a more integrated and synergistic approach between the REG IADP and the ITDs platforms is pursued. In fact, several technological developments will take place in Airframe and System ITDs in strong interaction and collaboration with the leaders of integrated air vehicles (other IADPs). Nevertheless, a global steering and management entity is defined according to the high level work breakdown structure in order to ensure the achievements of the final Clean Sky 2 goals for regional aviation.
Taking into account the outcomes of GRA and considering the high level objectives derived from recent market analysis performed by the Leaders, the strategy is to integrate and validate - at aircraft level - advanced technologies for regional aircraft so as to drastically de-risk their integration in respect of the following future products:
- Near/mid-term (deployment of new technologies beyond 2025): Regional Aircraft with underwing mounted turboprop engines
- Long term (service entry beyond 2035): Breakthrough Regional Aircraft Configurations, i.e. aircraft with rear fuselage mounted turboprop engines
Innovative and highly integrated full-scale demonstrations, allowing acceptable risk and complexity but still providing the requested integration answers, are essential to allow the application of breakthrough technologies into future regional aircraft products, near/mid term and long term as stated above.
In summary, the REG IADP demonstration programmes comprise:
2 Flying Test Beds (to minimise the technical and program risks); modified existing aircraft; TP engine underwing mounted, for demonstration campaigns of air vehicle configuration technologies, wing structure with integrated systems and propulsion integration, flight dynamics, aerodynamic and loads alleviation, advanced flight controls and general systems, and, avionics functionalities.
FTB1 - Innovative Wing and Flight Controls (REG IADP)
This demonstrator will include integration and flight testing of technologies suitable for regional aircraft applications for a new generation wing, and for advanced flight control systems. Innovative wing related systems and wing structural solutions will also be incorporated where feasible. Aerodynamic enhancements and Load Control & Alleviation (LC&A) features are considered to complement FTB2, such as high A/R by means of adaptive/innovative winglets.
FTB2 - Flight Demonstration of a high efficiency / low noise Wing with Integrated Structural and related Systems solution, including power plant aspects (REG IADP)
This demonstrator will have an Integrated Structural and related Systems solution, including power plant aspects: the outer wing, for example, will be equipped with new structural solutions strongly integrated with advanced low power and highly efficient systems, flight control, LE and winglets morphing.
3 Large integrated Ground Demonstrators
i.e. Full-scale Fuselage and Passengers Cabin, Iron Bird, Outer Wing Box
Full-scale innovative fuselage and passenger cabin (REG IADP):
This demonstrator will involve the integration and on-ground testing of an innovative full scale fuselage and passenger cabin including on board systems and advanced solutions for increasing passenger comfort and safety. The fuselage will be a full scale demonstration of technologies for composite materials, structures and manufacturing with a view towards reducing weight and cost, and to minimising environmental impact through eco-design and energy consumption optimisation throughout the life-cycle. Ultimately, the target is zero-impact.
Iron Bird (REG IADP)
An iron bird is a type of immobile "sister ship" aircraft that never flies, but stays in a hangar, undergoing constant analysis to monitor how systems, electrics and structures will perform in the future. It accumulates more simulated flying hours than its airborne counterparts, so we can monitor the performance of an aircraft further into the future than its airborne siblings will ever fly.
Iron Birds used to only exist in physical form, but there are virtual iron birds too now. Both physical and virtual iron birds form an indispensable part of the Regional Aircraft Ground Demonstration Programme, used to integrate, optimise and validate the systems modifications of the Flying Test Bed. The results of the simulations and ground testing will be essential to achieving the permit-to-fly.
Outer Wing Box
This demonstrator will validate the design of innovative low cost and low weight structural technologies integration at full scale, using static and fatigue tests.