How can digital technology pave the way for decarbonised aviation?

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Air transport is responsible for more than 4% of greenhouse gas emissions and like all other sectors in the economy, it needs to undergo a strong ecological transformation. The aviation industry has thus committed to achieving net zero emissions in aviation by 2050. Digital tools are proving to be highly effective accelerators in this process.

Even though aviation is not the biggest contributor to global warming, its contribution is still substantial and is growing rapidly. “In 2018, the aviation industry contributed to 2.6% of CO2 emissions, i.e., more than twice that of a country like France, in addition to other non-CO2 emissions, such as nitrogen oxides and vapour trails, which also have a significant impact on global warming," points out Guilhem Bouley, in charge of the Consulting part of the "Aeroline Zero Emission" programme at Sopra Steria. “The aviation industry however has made a joint commitment to work towards net zero emissions aviation by 2050, by adopting five major driving factors.

The entire ecosystem is working on different solutions such as renewal of fleets with aircraft that consume less fuel, large-scale deployment of biofuels, also known as SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel), electrification of ground operations, optimisation of air traffic, or development of new aircraft that rely on hydrogen or electric hybridisation.

Teams of major manufacturers, suppliers, airports and airline companies are therefore fully mobilised, with engineers spearheading the initiative. To be successful on an industry-wide scale within a short time, they can partner with DSCs (Digital Services Company) like Sopra Steria.

"Digital technologies can boost innovation. But they cannot resolve all industrial challenges, such as inventing a new hydrogen engine for example. However, digital technology can provide tools that address environmental issues and improve decision making. This is how we are striving to contribute to the transformation of the aviation industry at Sopra Steria," explains Guilhem Bouley.

Better communication, better design, better decision-making

Besides the support offered by its Aeroline vertical consultants, Sopra Steria has also launched an Aeroline Zero Emission program to boost the effort made by the key players, especially its leading industry clients, such as Thales, Airbus, Safran or Dassault.

"In fact, digital technology primarily provides support for measuring environmental performance," explains Florent Brodziak, Digital Sustainability Consultant for the Aeroline vertical and part of the "Aeroline Zero Emission" program team. "However, to optimise the use of data for taking action, it must be shared effectively. As the aeronautics ecosystem is complex it involves a broad range of stakeholders performing very different activities, from product design to air traffic, including production as well as ground operations at airports. So we need to create digital platforms that can collect data from all these stakeholders, so as to get a holistic view that makes it easier to make decisions and prioritise the environmental protection measures to be implemented,” he adds.

Although as of today there is no centralised platform to consolidate all this data, projects are in the pipeline to get started. In Europe, there is a Green Airport for example, and BoostAeroSpace, a digital platform created by Airbus, Dassault Aviation, Safran and Thales. Meanwhile, GIFAS (Groupement des Industries Françaises Aéronautiques et Spatiales) [French Aerospace Industries Association], which brings together nearly 400 stakeholders from the aviation industry, is working at the industry level to improve digital continuity of data and to foster collaboration between stakeholders in the industry.

"At Sopra Steria, for example, we are developing virtual assistants and AI-based search engines to help engineers access the information they need more easily and quickly," explains Benoît Spolidor, Head of Artificial Intelligence in the Aeroline vertical. “We are also working on a ‘sustainable by design’ approach which, using MES (Manufacturing Execution System), 3D or artificial intelligence solutions, helps make better decisions and design systems that will still be operational in ten or fifteen years' time

In this regard, Airbus has launched for example the DDMS (Digital Design Manufacturing & Services) programme aimed at digitising all processes, methods and tools to accelerate the time-to-market of new aircraft.

In addition, digital technology is a means of improving ground operations and reducing use of fuel while flying. For example, Sopra Steria has worked on a project for a customer to optimise aircraft routes using Artificial Intelligence algorithms to reduce fuel consumption.

Full digital responsibility

"To anticipate future trends, we are developing machine learning models, called "Surrogate Models", that can reduce the duration of simulations. Although still in the research phase, deep learning and the use of quantum computers have the potential to speed up the creation of new materials.”, adds Benoît Spolidor.

While digital technology can be a means for optimisation and cooperation, or for speeding up the industrialisation of new products, it cannot neglect its own green transition.

"We do not launch new digital projects, especially in the field of artificial intelligence, before examining their environmental impact," insists Benoît Spolidor. With this in mind, Sopra Steria has developed a dedicated offer called "Sustainable AI", which is used to eco-design the AI modules that the company develops for its aeronautics customers, as well as to estimate their ecological quality before development.

This digital responsibility approach is requested by the aviation industry and is in line with Sopra Steria's strategy. "Our Group is committed to working towards a “Net Zero Emissions" goal across our entire value chain. We are consistent with our Group’s vision and strategy”, explains Florent Brodziak, adding that: “Our objective is to provide far more sustainable digital solutions, mainly based on a logic of software eco-design”.