Designing Tomorrow’s Aviation

An increasing number of people are choosing to fly more and more often in order to travel quickly, safely, and in comfort. Air traffic is expected to continue to grow in the long term. The goals of our aviation research program are to reduce pollutant emissions from aircraft, cut airplane noise, develop unmanned aircraft, and digitalize all aspects of aviation. At the same time, we aim to strengthen Germany’s aviation industry in an internationally competitive environment.

The aviation industry has an enormous environmental responsibility: International air traffic currently accounts for 3.5 percent of global warming. However, with 2015’s Paris Agreement, countries around the world have pledged to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius – and if possible, below 1.5 degrees Celsius. For this to be achievable, international aviation must become emission-free by 2050 at the latest.

To tackle these challenges, Helmholtz scientists are working to make crucial advancements in air transport. Their projects range from airplanes powered by electricity or hydrogen fuel cell technology through to “digital twins” of real aircraft. A digital twin acts as a virtual copy of the airplane, shadowing it from the design stage through operation all the way to decommissioning, thus giving experts access to information about the condition of every component at all times. Helmholtz scientists also design entirely new aircraft models, such as efficient flying wings without fuselages or aircraft without windows, in which passengers use VR goggles to see outside. These examples show that aviation is on the cusp of major changes.

Key research areas in the aviation research program

In four key research areas, we are doing everything we can to make air transport safer, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly – and to develop innovative technologies:

  • Efficient Vehicle aims to make aircraft more sustainable and economical. Every design concept is fully digitally modeled to optimize aerodynamic properties. Any risks arising during the design stage or in testing can thus be identified and eliminated when the aircraft still only exists on the computer. The same applies to new types of propulsion, such as the electrification of flight operations.

  • In the Clean Propulsion research area, Helmholtz experts investigate clean methods of powering the aviation of the future. The possibilities range widely, from alternative fuels obtained from renewables to hybrid electric powertrains based on batteries or fuel cells. In addition, they are working to improve engines so that they are quieter and emit fewer exhaust fumes. There is also a focus on new production techniques such as additive manufacturing using 3D printers.

  • The Components and Systems research area is concerned with individual aircraft components and the way they interact within the overall system. The aim is to make aircraft lighter using new, innovative materials and shapes in wing construction. Furthermore, we are developing largely automated manufacturing processes in order to computerize the design, testing, and approval of aircraft.

  • Finally, the Air Transportation and Impact research area is dedicated to developing the aviation management systems of the future. Future transport concepts will be even more interconnected as fully automated piloting and unmanned aircraft are introduced into today’s traffic flows. Questions about safety and the economic and environmental impacts of these systems are examined here.

Aviation Research Program Factsheet

  • The aviation research program is laying the foundations for the safe, efficient, and, as far as possible, climate-neutral air transport system of the future. This calls for entirely new approaches. Aviation is about to leap forward into a new era.
  • We are developing new aircraft using alternative propulsion systems and innovative manufacturing techniques, while also keeping the interaction between all components in mind.
  • The digitalization of all aspects of aircraft is accelerating innovation in the industry. Simulation tools on supercomputers can, for example, support development, testing, and approval processes and ultimately even replace them.
  • We carry out research across the entire aviation system with industry partners who are key players in the international marketplace.
  • The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is putting this research program into practice. The DLR is engaged in aviation research at 22 institutes, is part of a global network, and works closely with the industry.
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