Flight testing is a critical step to analysing the maturity and measuring the performance of future aircraft technologies. Through its flight test platforms, Airbus Flightlab puts these technologies to the test. Today, the Flightlab team is focused on expanding its ecosystem to offer even more flight test platforms—including those from commercial aircraft and helicopters.
In a hangar in Colomiers, France—about 12 kilometres west of Toulouse—an A350 is slowly but surely being transformed. Along the air inlet, multiple optical fibres have been installed. An on-board system, capable of carrying out in-flight measurement of engine emissions, is being prepared for activation. And a variety of sensors, from Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) to optical ice detectors, has been placed on board.
All of these modifications prove this particular A350 is not like the others seen on today’s runways: in fact, it is an Airbus test aircraft.
“You can’t test tomorrow’s aircraft technologies on today’s in-service aircraft,” explains Thierry Fol, Cross-Divisional Airbus Flightlab Leader. “And advanced modelling is not enough to deliver proof of concept either. We need flight testing in a real-world environment.”
The Airbus Helicopters Flightlab is a flying laboratory exclusively dedicated to maturing new technologies
Airbus Flightlab provides an invaluable service to Airbus and the aviation industry at large: we help deliver proof of concept for tomorrow’s technologies much more quickly.
- Thierry Fol, Cross-Divisional Airbus Flightlab Leader
This is where Airbus Flightlab comes in. In the more than ten years since its launch, the Airbus Flightlab has put many future aircraft technologies to the test. In particular, the BLADE demonstrator tested the world’s first laminar wing on an A340 test aircraft with the aim of bringing a 50% reduction in wing friction and up to 5% fewer CO2 emissions. In addition, an electric flight test demonstrator (e-FTD) evaluated the performance of an electrical air conditioning system, which helped pave the way to further electrification in aircraft.
Given these successes, the Airbus Flightlab, in close cooperation with Airbus UpNext, has now set its sights on testing even more disruptive technologies in an effort to accelerate their market development.
A testbed for tomorrow’s flight technologies
Airbus Flightlab is essentially a network of flight test platforms that serve as flight demonstrators. These “flying laboratories” are Airbus test aircraft or helicopters, such as an A320 or A350, that are modified to make it possible to test aircraft technologies that have yet to be commercialised.
“Airbus Flightlab provides an invaluable service to Airbus and the aviation industry at large: we help deliver proof of concept for tomorrow’s technologies much more quickly,” Thierry explains. “This means the latest advances in critical areas, such as emissions reduction and smart monitoring, can potentially get to market faster than ever.”
Indeed, four main objectives are at the heart of Flightlab’s mission:
Reducing emissions: Emissions monitoring, sound level measurement and fuel-reduction technologies could help to significantly improve the environmental performance of future aircraft and helicopters.
Improving the piloting experience: Video data capturing, dissimilar sensing and other autonomous technologies could help optimise pilot workload and overall operations, increase system performance and enhance safety.
Increasing connectivity: 4G/5G aircraft connectivity, airborne laser communications and wireless wearable sensor technologies could help improve the passenger experience while ushering in a new era of smart aircraft.
Fostering trust in air travel: In the context of COVID-19, cabin sanitisation technologies could help develop more efficient and smarter disinfection techniques, thereby offering passengers more peace of mind.
The future is Flightlab-friendly
Recently, the Flightlab ecosystem expanded to welcome Airbus Helicopters into the fold. Launched in 2020, the Airbus Helicopters flight test platform is focused on testing cutting-edge technologies in hybrid and electric propulsion, autonomy and emissions reduction. Current flight tests involve measuring helicopter sound levels in urban areas, the results of which will inform Urban Air Mobility initiatives, and assessing the performance of an engine back-up system that would provide emergency electric power in the event of a turbine failure.
Furthermore, the Flightlab team is currently exploring the launch of a flight test platform dedicated to flight-testing technologies from Airbus Defence and Space.
“Very early on, we realised the concept of a flying laboratory to test future technologies developed at Airbus had enormous potential across the entire scope of Airbus’ business lines,” Thierry says. “We’re thrilled the team is making great progress in growing our Flightlab ecosystem.”