The future of flight is green and affordable
While aviation serves and connects us in ways that no other mode of transportation can match, there are serious challenges in the industry today. To start, a look at a live air traffic monitoring website such as FlightRadar24 might surprise with the sheer number of aircraft in the skies around us. Together, they contribute significantly to one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change.
We need to find ways to make aviation, on which we depend for so much, cleaner and less harmful to the environment — a cause that the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has made popular by refusing to fly to speaking engagements in Europe and North America, for example.
It’s also a goal that researchers and innovators at Ryerson are taking on through projects aimed at advancing alternative energy sources for powered flight, which ultimately could serve to make the aviation industry more sustainable.
Using the sun to power aerial vehicles
For aerospace engineer Goetz Bramesfeld, soaring above the clouds as a young man with his high school glider club in Germany inspired his career choice. Now, he’s leading a team of graduate students at Ryerson’s Applied Aerodynamics Laboratory of Flight who are focused on developing a long-endurance aircraft powered by clean solar energy alone.
“The immediate outcome of this project is the training of capable aerospace engineers who have a broad and applied understanding of the challenges in our field, while also considering the societal and environmental implications of their work,” Bramesfeld explains.
While that summary sounds appropriately well-grounded, the team behind the CREATeV endeavour has its sights set on a loftier purpose. It hopes to set a new world record for sustained autonomous flight by a solar aircraft. The current mark is just under 26 hours, which was set in 2018 by an aircraft built by the European aerospace giant Airbus. The CREATeV team is confident it can beat that using the solar panels it is developing and is aiming to deliver an aerial vehicle that’s capable of continuous flight for at least 60 days.
It would be an extraordinary achievement for such a small aircraft. The CREATeV is seemingly pencil thin, with a long, solar panel-covered wingspan. But small is what gives it many of its potential applications, including environmental and wildlife observation, remote surveying, forest fire detection and as low-cost airborne communication hubs.
In fact, although it is purely a research project at this stage, some of the students involved are hoping to commercialize the CREATeV, primarily by offering long-endurance airborne sensing services.
“The miniaturization of electronics and advances in solar and battery technologies are making things possible that we can barely grasp at this point,” Bramesfeld emphasizes. “Smaller and more autonomous aircraft become possible every day, and they will enable even more previously unimagined missions and applications. It is truly an exciting time for young aerospace engineers,” he adds.
Smaller and more autonomous aircraft become possible every day, and they will enable even more previously unimagined missions and applications. It is truly an exciting time for young aerospace engineers.Goetz Bramesfeld, Associate Professor, Aerospace Engineering
Indeed, it is. And our airspaces will end up cleaner for it, as a result.
Making road trips less-travelled by road
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”
So begins the short poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee Jr., written in 1941 while the 19-year-old airman was serving with the Royal Canadian Air Force in England, and beloved by generations of pilots and aviation enthusiasts since.
The experience of taking the controls of an aircraft is one that Alon Guberman, founder of Woodbridge, Ontario-based DisRAPTOR, wants to extend to everyday commuters, as well as aspiring adventurers, first responders and potentially even future delivery services.
The company is developing an electric vehicle (EV) that can drive and park on regular roads, while at the same time offer vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities and cruising speeds of up to 300 kph. That makes it an attractive transportation alternative not just to and from densely populated areas, but also remote regions where communities are harder to reach. Plus, because the vehicle relies on clean, renewable energy for charging, it can operate at about a third of the cost of a small, sporty vehicle with an internal combustion engine. As an eVTOL vehicle, it can also take advantage of existing networks of EV charging stations.
300 kphSpeed that DisRAPTOR’s electric vehicle will be capable of flying
“Over the next decade, I can see several different models of DisRAPTOR zipping across the sky and driving our streets,” Guberman explains. “And there won’t be the need for hangar space or the costly infrastructure required for a commercial ‘vertiport.’”
He adds that DisRAPTOR is designed to be road legal, at least, anywhere in North America. Such a concept received a welcome boost in July 2020 when the state of New Hampshire passed legislation that was quickly dubbed the “Jetson Bill” after the 1960s animated sitcom, in which George Jetson “squired his family in a flying car,” as Forbes reported.
The state law addresses “roadable aircraft” and provides for their registration and rules for inspections and accidents in ways that could be precedent-setting.
Over the next decade, I can see several different models of DisRAPTOR zipping across the sky and driving our streets. And there won’t be the need for hangar space or the costly infrastructure required for a commercial vertiport.Alon Guberman, Founder of DisRAPTOR
For Guberman, partnerships with or investments from major automotive manufacturers or aerospace design firms could also help accelerate getting versatile and energy-efficient vehicles like DisRAPTOR to market. In the meantime, he’s gained valuable experience through working with Ryerson’s Clean Energy Zone (CEZ), an incubator focused on clean, sustainable energy innovations.
“The great thing about CEZ is that it provides access to start-up learning resources, advice and connections to other founders with similar ambitions,” he says. “It also gives our work greater visibility, and that can help with fund-raising from government and private funds.”
However grounded in practical matters that might seem, Guberman also continues to hold to his vision — one in which door-to-door travel by car can be less time-consuming or bound to roadways laid out by others, and more environmentally friendly, by including the option of some EV-powered high flight for at least part of the journey.