UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a speech on June 30 challenged the British aerospace industry to produce the world's first "net zero" long-haul passenger plane, with promise that the government will back high-risk, innovative projects such as this as part of a post-COVID "New Deal."
In addition to a multi-billion pound government plan to jumpstart the economy, reeling from the ongoing pandemic, Johnson announced intent to increase government funding to back "high risk, high reward" innovative projects – including a zero-emissions passenger jet.
"We lead the world in quantum computing, in life sciences, in genomics, in AI, space satellites, net zero planes, and in the long term solutions to global warming - wind, solar, hydrogen technology, carbon capture and storage, nuclear," Johnson said. "And as part of our mission to reach Net Zero CO2 emissions by 2050, we should set ourselves the goal now, of producing the world's first net zero long haul passenger plane."
"Jet Zero. Let's do it."
The UK government has already pledged £125 million from the country's Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to invest in aircraft and related technologies it views as part of a "third revolution of aviation," as described by Gary Cutts, Challenge Director at UK Research and Innovation.
And French airplane maker Airbus recently announced plans to bring a hydrogen-powered regional jet to market by 2035, toward which the French government committed to invest $1.7 billion. Airbus, on the same day as Johnson's speech, announced plans to eliminate up to 15,000 jobs, including 1,700 in the United Kingdom, as it deals with the financial impact of the coronavirus.
The timeline Airbus is working toward is for a regional jet, capable of carrying about 80-160 passengers.
Developing the world's first zero-emissions long-haul passenger jet, rather than regional, is a challenge thought to be at least 30 years off and will certainly require billions in investment across fundamental technologies to reach.
"Net zero is an extremely tough but necessary target, and the future of the UK's decarbonisation [sic] and path to net zero is contingent on key decisions made by the government during this parliament," commented Professor Sir Jim McDonald, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. "Three decades is a very short time to completely renew, upgrade, install and secure entire parts of the UK's national infrastructure but if government is willing to take a truly holistic view of the system then the engineering community stands ready to deliver on the promise and potential of decarbonisation."
As part of the technology push, Johnson said the UK government will create a new science funding agency this summer to back high-risk, high-reward projects such as this one.
Johnson's "New Deal" speech was focused not just on leading the world in technology and innovation, but ensuring jobs created by British innovation stay in Britain, aligning with the nationalistic politics of Britain's exit from the European Union.
"We must end the chasm between invention and application that means a brilliant British discovery disappears to California and becomes a billion dollar American company or a Chinese company, and we need now a new dynamic commercial spirit to make the most of UK breakthroughs so that British ideas produce new British industries and British jobs," Johnson said.
Across the pond, the United States is leveraging government and military assets, through the U.S. Air Force's Agility Prime program, to support domestic investment in electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, intended for use in urban aerial passenger transport as well as logistics missions. These new eVTOL aircraft are expected to cost more than $1 billion to bring through the certification process.
Details associated with Johnson's announcement and dedicated funding for this ambitious project have not yet been announced. However, if the government commits resources to this revolutionary project, it will truly mark the beginning of an aerospace revolution – and perhaps force other governments to follow suit or risk being left behind.