Cranfield Aerospace Solutions (CAeS) is making significant strides towards revolutionizing the aviation industry with its ambitious plans to introduce hydrogen-powered regional airliners by 2026.
Collaborating with UK airframer Britten-Norman, CAeS aims to produce carbon-free versions of its Islander family of aircraft, leveraging a consolidated on-wing hydrogen propulsion system. This groundbreaking initiative, backed by strategic investors, governments, and key partners, holds the potential to transform subregional air services and usher in a greener era of aviation.
CAeS has set its sights on transforming the aviation landscape by introducing carbon-free versions of its nine-passenger Islander aircraft, which currently operate with piston or turboprop engines. The company envisions replacing these traditional powerplants with a cutting-edge hydrogen propulsion system that promises cleaner, more sustainable air travel.
CAeS is on the path to merge with UK airframer Britten-Norman, a strategic partnership that unlocks new funding opportunities. HydrogenOne Capital Growth, a consortium comprising HydrogenOne, Safran Corporate Ventures, and the UAE’s Strategic Development Fund, has pledged £10 million ($13 million) to support CAeS’s hydrogen propulsion project. Additionally, CAeS is embarking on a Series B funding round, aiming to raise a further £30 million to fuel its research and development efforts through the end of 2024.
Unlike conventional hydrogen pioneers, CAeS is taking a unique approach by integrating the entire propulsion system into nacelles on the wing. This design decision aims to maximize power delivery while addressing challenges related to system packaging, weight management, and thermal issues in the confined space of the airframe. By tackling these critical aspects, CAeS is positioning itself to achieve certification and successful implementation of the hydrogen propulsion system.
CAeS’s goal is to maintain the performance capabilities of the existing Islander aircraft, except for the range, which will be slightly reduced due to hydrogen’s storage requirements. The hydrogen models are expected to fly for approximately one hour, with 45 minutes of energy reserves, covering distances of up to 250 kilometers (156 miles). This range is well-suited for short-hop sectors and subregional scheduled air services, making the hydrogen-powered Islander a promising choice for future operators.
The hydrogen propulsion system’s design, with fewer moving parts compared to conventional engines, is anticipated to yield significant cost savings in fuel consumption and maintenance. CAeS projects that operators can achieve up to 40 percent savings in these areas, making the transition to hydrogen even more appealing from an economic perspective.
In CAeS’s pursuit of achieving net-zero carbon air transport, the company hopes that governments will introduce compelling incentives for airlines to phase out fossil fuels. Measures such as carbon taxes and subsidies for green aircraft could accelerate the transition to hydrogen-powered aviation. CAeS foresees a robust market demand for subregional green aircraft by 2026, positioning itself as a key player in meeting this demand.
Looking ahead, CAeS envisions scaling up its hydrogen propulsion system to support larger aircraft, including 19-seat and eventually 100-seat planes. The company’s airfield location offers an ideal testing ground for developing and refining hydrogen refueling equipment and processes, in collaboration with regulators to establish standards for the emerging technology.
CAeS plans to introduce its first Islanders powered by gaseous hydrogen, ensuring fuel availability for early adopters. As liquid hydrogen becomes more widely accessible, the company intends to switch to this form of storage by 2029, further enhancing the viability of hydrogen-powered aircraft.
The success of the hydrogen-powered Islander project relies on collaboration with industry leaders. Partners such as Evolito, Ricardo, and Reaction Engines play pivotal roles in developing electric motors, fuel cell hardware, and thermal management systems, respectively.
With ambitious plans to bring hydrogen-powered regional airliners to market, CAeS is taking a bold step towards a sustainable aviation industry. The consolidation of the hydrogen propulsion system on the wing sets it apart from conventional approaches, positioning CAeS as a frontrunner in the pursuit of cleaner air travel. Supported by strategic investors, governments, and key partners, the hydrogen-powered Islander holds immense potential to transform subregional air services, reduce carbon emissions, and pave the way for a greener era of aviation.