A new initiative funded by the UK Government has been launched with the aim of developing the country’s first automated, zero-carbon regional air transportation network. Named Project HEART (Hydrogen Electric and Automated Regional Transportation), the initiative aims to develop hydrogen powered, automated and remote piloting solutions for small aircraft carrying between 9 and 19 passengers, travelling ‘short hops’ under 500 nautical miles.
There would be clear environmental benefits, as well as benefits for passengers, as this convenient zero-carbon travel option aims to enable scalability and lead to reductions in operating costs, door-to-door travel times and ticket prices. Up to 100 licenced airfields throughout the UK will be made available as part of the initiative, which is expected to enter service in 2025.
According to the project partners, existing ‘short hop’ air travel is economically unsustainable and is thus reliant on government subsidies to cover the high maintenance and running costs. Current operations, which require two pilots in each aircraft, depend upon expensive and polluting gas turbine powertrains.
Project HEART aims to offer a more affordable alternative that address these deficiencies with next-generation technology and a ‘system of systems’ approach, bringing together a network of experts to redevelop the entire aviation ecosystem. As part of this approach, mobile satellite communications company, Inmarsat, will help to power a hybrid connectivity solution that seamlessly combines its satellite communications with terrestrial networks, enabling remote ‘digital’ co-piloting and journey-critical communication in the cockpit. This setup would enable the human pilot and the digital co-pilot functions, designed by Blue Bear Systems Research, to work together effectively and operations to be managed remotely. The technology will be evaluated on Britten-Norman aircraft.
Philip Balaam, president of Inmarsat Aviation said, “Project HEART represents a greener, smarter and more efficient future for aviation. We are proud to support this important project of the UK Government, utilising our 30 years of experience in satellite communication, navigation and surveillance for both commercial and private aviation, as well as expertise in unmanned vehicle traffic management. Working alongside our extensive network of partners, including Honeywell Aerospace, we are particularly excited about enabling remote operations for aviation networks of the future.”
Project HEART is led by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and is funded by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) Future Flight Challenge (FFC). The consortium comprises leading UK technology companies that will contribute resources in the areas of technology, operations, infrastructure and think tank experience.
Other innovations in development for the project include hydrogen fuel cell powertrains for aircraft (led by ZeroAvia), hydrogen refuelling solutions (led by Protium), and a Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platform, with integrated sub-regional flight travel mode (led by Fleetondemand), with acceptance testing headed by The Transport Research Institute of Edinburgh Napier University. In addition, architects Weston Williamson + Partners will lead on new airport infrastructure design, while the Loganair airline and Highland and Island Airports will lead on the accommodation of automation and hydrogen-fuelled aircraft operations.