The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Veteran Airframer Seeks Leading Role Weaning Airliners Off Fossil Fuel

It’s one thing developing a highly innovative concept to power aircraft with carbon-neutral fuel such as green hydrogen. It’s quite another to integrate this technology with new and existing aircraft, while also handling all aspects of type certification, manufacturing, and customer support.

This is where Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ MHI RJ Aviation Group (MHIRJ) feels it can add value with hydrogen propulsion system developers leveraging its expertise. The Montreal-based operation has a strong heritage because it used to be Bombardier’s commercial aircraft manufacturing division before the Japanese group acquired the Canadian airframer’s CRJ regional jet program in June 2020.

This was part of the divesture process that saw Bombardier exit the commercial aviation sector by selling its CSeries narrowbody airliner program to Airbus in July 2018. The CSeries is now in production under its new A220 brand.

The 50- to 100-seat CRJ family of twinjets is no longer in production and so today MHIRJ’s core mission is to support a 1,300-strong installed base of aircraft among some 140 operators worldwide. It provides services including MRO, cabin conversions, and asset management.

To capitalize on its experience manufacturing an aircraft dynasty that rolled off production lines from 1991 until February 2021, when the last example was delivered to Skywest Airlines, the company established its Aerospace Engineering Center, which offers expertise to other companies, including concept design, development, testing, manufacturing planning, and certification.

“We’ve been speaking to a number of companies who don’t have the capacity to take on a large specialist workforce,” explained Ross Mitchell, vice president for corporate shared services. “This is where we come in; our team has experience of having designed, built, and certified multiple platforms, which makes [program] implementation easier.”

Late last month, the Aerospace Engineering Center signed up its first prospective client when ZeroAvia announced a partnership agreement through which MHIRJ will help it to bring its hydrogen propulsion system into commercial service on regional jets. At first glance, it seemed obvious that this will entail converting existing CRJs. However, MHIRJ says that the detailed commitments behind the October 25 memorandum of understanding still need to be confirmed and that any conversion projects could extend to other regional aircraft.

The initial focus of the partnership would be to work on the Part 33 certification requirements covering aircraft propulsion systems. “We understand that ZeroAvia is positioning itself to be an engine manufacturer, and we want to help develop [the hydrogen fuel cell-based system] to first work on the TEST!(params=) bench, but then be scalable and applicable [for large numbers of aircraft],” said Elio Ruggi, MHIRJ’s senior vice president and head of aircraft development and quality. “We are an aircraft-level OEM, we have design approval delegate [authority], and we understand issues like engine performance and aircraft integration requirements.”

Collectively, the 1,300 CRJs in service today have logged more than 54 million flight hours to date. Ruggi described that as, “a great set of reference data,” in terms of understanding how the aircraft performs in service. He confirmed that the CRJ is certainly one among several regional jet candidates that could have its Jet-A-burning twin turbofans replaced by hydrogen systems.

“There is no doubt that many elements have to come together [for hydrogen to be accepted in the air transport sector], and operators will want to see a viable business case and that they are getting the most from a retrofit,” Mitchell said. “Regional airliners are no different from mainline carriers and both know that different methods of propulsion will be required in the future. They will be facing some big technical decisions in the near future and we can offer some industry credibility because we have the reputation and the workforce.”

Speaking with FutureFlight as the United Nations COP26 climate change conference got underway in Scotland, Mitchell acknowledged that intensifying pressure to drive down aviation’s carbon footprint will demand new technology and a willingness on the part of operators to invest in greening their fleets. “It’s hard to say what exactly will come out of COP26, but the movement for sustainability is here to stay and as governments develop requirements, industry will have to adapt. We’ll be ready whatever course it takes and at whatever speed.”

As the air transport sector continues its recovery from the completely unforeseen impact of the Covid pandemic, MHIRJ sees more grounds for optimism. “The regional jet market usually recovers quickest, and the widebody [aircraft] more slowly,” Mitchell concluded.

Japan-based Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has still not confirmed whether or not it will resume the development of its 88-seat SpaceJet M90 airliner. In October 2020, it suspended work on the long-delayed program to stem financial losses inflicted by the Covid pandemic, despite holding launch orders from All Nippon Airways.

The prospective alliance between MHIRJ and ZeroAvia is far from being the only contender in a sector aiming to breathe new life into existing fossil-fuel-powered airliners. This week, Wright Electric announced plans to convert the venerable BAe 146 family of regional jets. The company says it could have a 100-seater model operating one-hour commercial flights from 2026.

ZeroAvia is already working on plans to bring a hydrogen-powered 19-seat twin-turboprop aircraft into commercial service by 2024, with initial flights expected to connect Rotterdam and London. Its main rival Universal Hydrogen is working on supplemental type certificates to convert 40- to 50-seat regional airliners such as the ATR42 and Dash 8 twin turboprops.

In August, Embraer said that it intends to have a hydrogen-powered technology demonstrator airborne by 2025. This will likely be a conversion of one of the Brazilian airframer’s ERJ or E-Jet airliners, or perhaps one of its business jets. The company’s Eve Urban Air Mobility Solutions unit is developing a four-passenger eVTOL aircraft.

MagniX is advancing plans to electrify small commuter aircraft like the Cessna Grand Caravan and the DHC-2 Beaver, with the involvement of AeroTec as its systems integration partner. It has signed up launch customers including Canada-based Harbour Air, U.S. private flight operator Lima NY (part of the Blade Urban Air Mobility network), and Sydney Seaplanes in Australia.