Tests begin on zero-emission propulsion for commercial flights

Sep 13, 2021

Cranfield Airport.

THE DREAM of zero-emission commercial flights has moved a step closer to reality.

Cranfield Aerospace Solutions has purchased and taken delivery of a Britten-Norman Islander from Isles of Scilly Steamship Group and will retrofit the aircraft with hydrogen fuel cell technology. 

CAeS, part of Cranfield University, is the UK SME leading the Project Fresson consortium. It is integrating hydrogen fuel cell technology to develop a commercially viable powertrain for aviation. 

It is working towards the first test flight early in 2023, with the aircraft on the market two years later.

The arrival of the Islander in CAeS’s hangar at Cranfield Airport is an important milestone toward the world’s first regulatory-certified, zero-emissions, commercial passenger aircraft. Having the aircraft in the hanger will enable the company to start test flights on the existing engines to record full performance and then begin alterations to remove existing powertrains and install and test the revolutionary hydrogen powertrains. 

The Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, to be refitted at Cranfield Airport with hydrogen fuel cell technology.

CAeS chief executive Paul Hutton said: “We are excited to begin testing our hydrogen fuel cell powertrain technology on a widely used commercial aircraft. It is critical that the aviation industry delivers real zero emissions aircraft solutions to reduce its impact on the environment.”

The plan is for the zero emissions product to be in the GBP820m Islander market both as a retro-fit solution and incorporated into the new model of the Islander by 2025. The next stage is to produce a commercially viable hydrogen 19-seat aircraft and then to develop a new design zero emissions 75-seat regional aircraft.

Isles of Scilly Steamship Company runs passenger and freight flights under the name Skybus between Land’s End and Newquay Airports to the Isles of Scilly and seasonally from Exeter, carrying 90,000 passengers a year. It carries time critical freight such as medicines and medical products to the islands and provides a medical evacuation service. 

Skybus has operated BN Islander aircrafy to the Isles of Scilly since 1984.

Stuart Reid, chief executive of the Isles of Scilly Steamship Group, said: “The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company are committed to working towards a zero emission aviation industry and being an early adopter of this cutting-edge technology. We are excited about Cranfield Aerospace’s Project Fresson and we look forward to the development of their new hydrogen fuel cell aircraft.”

CAeS is one of very few aerospace SMEs in the world to have both whole modification of existing aircraft design capability and to hold regulatory approvals for the design and manufacture of modifications to existing aircraft. 

Cranfield Airport houses some of the UK’s most advanced aviation research facilities.  CAeS clients have included Boeing, Airbus, Rolls Royce, BAE Systems, L3, Thales and Raytheon. Project Fresson has been supported by a £103 million grant from the UK government.

Mr Hutton said: “We are now rapidly progressing to delivering the first certified emissions free passenger carrying aircraft services anywhere in the world.”

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