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Exeter Airport among first projects for Hydrogen Challenge announced by aviation regulator

The UK Civil Aviation Authority has selected three projects to increase industry and regulatory readiness for the introduction of hydrogen fuel and new technologies. 

A consortium involving Exeter Airport, and projects from Cranfield Aerospace Solutions and ZeroAvia have all been selected by the regulator as part of its Hydrogen Challenge. 

The UK Civil Aviation Authority launched its challenge in November 2023, with funding from the Regulator’s Pioneer Fund, to help leverage the potential of hydrogen as a zero-carbon emission aviation fuel. 

Reducing the environmental impact of aircraft turnarounds at Exeter Airport will be the focus of a study carried out by Regional & City Airports, TUI, hydrogen technology developer ULEMCo and Cranfield University.  

The Consortium will use the Challenge to help enable the consortium members and the regulatory authority to review and provide feedback on safety cases, test plans, risk assessments and ultimately inform the development of guidance material and regulations for the future.

Another of the projects selected, by Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, is developing a hydrogen fuel cell drivetrain to be applied to aircraft and aims to conduct ground testing and flight trials this year. The UK Civil Aviation Authority will work with the organisation on identifying hazards, risks, and safety challenges associated with its project. 

 ZeroAvia, which is also developing hydrogen-electric (fuel cell) engines for aviation and already flying a prototype system in a Dornier 228 testbed under a UK Civil Aviation Authority Permit to Fly, will work with the regulator to identify hazards, risks, and safety challenges associated with the retrofitting of a hydrogen-electric power train. 

The UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Hydrogen Challenge is an example of how it is collaboratively working with industry to help shape the future of aviation. Introducing hydrogen propulsion is also key to achieving the UK Government’s Jet Zero Strategy. 

Tim Johnson, Director of Strategy and Policy at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said: “The Hydrogen Challenge is key to helping both the sector and UK Civil Aviation Authority to better understand emerging hydrogen technologies and the regulatory steps to progress towards entry into service.  

“Working closely with the three selected companies will enable us to take a step closer towards a net-zero aviation sector by supporting the industry to explore how feasible the introduction of hydrogen is and how we can make sure regulation develops with the technology and is fit for purpose.”  

Commenting on the Exeter Airport project, Andrew Bell, Chief Executive of Regional and City Airports, which owns and operates Exeter Airport, said: “This award builds on the groundbreaking research we are doing with our partners to reduce the environmental impact of aircraft turnarounds at airports. Introducing hydrogen fuel to ground operations could be a gamechanger on the journey to net zero, and we’re delighted be part of this exciting and potentially hugely significant project for the global aviation industry.”

Professor Anna Smallwood, Head of Centre for Air Transport Management at Cranfield University, said: “This collaborative project is an excellent example of how Cranfield University works closely with industry to enable real world progress towards sustainable aviation. Providing an independent coordinating role, connecting technology innovators with key players in industry, facilitating trials and providing an evidence base with academic integrity, it is exciting to contribute to developing solutions and provide pathways for the future.” 

Amanda Lyne, Managing Director of ULEMCo, said: “Our congratulations go to all the winners of the Hydrogen Challenge, and we wish them success in their exciting projects. Building on our experience converting vehicles such as aircraft tow trucks with safe hydrogen solutions, part of our role is to support customers and other users to accelerate the wider use cases for this clean fuel.” 

Hydrogen as an aviation fuel is at an early stage of development, the sector does not yet have a comprehensive understanding of the risks to aviation safety and the right pathway to certification. 

The UK Civil Aviation Authority will continue to address these issues through its Hydrogen Challenge, using a Regulatory Sandbox approach to make sure regulation is adapted and is fit for purpose for this new fuel.

The Hydrogen Challenge is funded with nearly £940,000 from the Regulators’ Pioneer Fund, which is overseen by the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology.