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Towards a secure, digitally-ready and low carbon aviation future for all

Getting there requires reliable tech, sustainable measures and building capacity.

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In 2018, Thales set up a Digital Factory in Singapore to accelerate its digital transformation and innovation efforts in Asia. The factory focuses on developing new digital products and services that can be tested and implemented quickly to capture the region's growing business opportunities.

AVIATION has come a long way from its early days of manual flying to the current day, where digitalisation is pushing the boundaries of what it means to fly a plane.

Now, discussions have shifted to manned versus unmanned aircraft, using artificial intelligence (AI) technology or not and, most recently, how such innovations factor in the environment.

Driving these are the exponential demand for air travel and the need for efficiency. From now till 2035, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) estimates that Asia-Pacific will see the fastest spurt in air traffic at an annual growth rate of 4.7 per cent, or an additional 1.8 billion passengers a year.

And so, as we welcome another year of the Singapore Airshow, where cutting-edge technology will be put on display and deals will be sealed, aerospace companies must consider a few factors to maintain the upward trajectory for the aviation industry.

SECURE TECHNOLOGY

Firstly, we need to ensure that the technology we create continues to be safe and secure.

Despite recent high-profile aviation accidents, air travel remains the safest mode of travel. Through digitalisation, technology such as AI has opened the door to innovative and safe solutions. The ability to harness data, resulting in better accuracy of decision-making and streamlined processes, is improving efficiency and customer experiences. The introduction of robotics and cobotics - where robots and people collaborate - have resulted in greater production efficiency and quality.

In the digital age, where problems need to be fixed before they occur, air traffic management needs to move beyond "managing" to "anticipating". AI has allowed us to enable predictive maintenance, which continuously studies data to design appropriate maintenance programmes that maximise performance.

These innovations have also widened the cyber footprint. To counter threats, we must add a safety net - cyber protection that fortifies the digital walls within the aviation system against evolving threats.

SUSTAINABLE INNOVATIONS

Secondly, innovations must consider the environmental impact and work towards being sustainable.

Recent discussions at Davos' World Economic Forum have put the climate change debate in the spotlight. As we continue to see sustainability and climate change driving the conversation, we must be part of the solution to re-imagine aviation offerings as we move into a low-carbon future.

Though air travel is responsible for 2 per cent of all global carbon emissions, industry leaders and governments are already working together to mitigate aviation's climate impact. Industry players have pledged to halve the 2005 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2050, through new operational procedures, lighter materials and electrification.

It should not end there. We must think of developing solutions that are energy-sober by design. Some of the action plans are not complicated, such as analysing your own greenhouse gas emissions and setting out a reduction target, and rethinking hardware architectures to increase the storage and processing capacity of a machine while reducing its energy needs.

At the current commitment level, each new generation of aircraft is already 15 to 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than previous versions, resulting in reduced CO2 emissions.

NEED FOR CAPACITY

Thirdly, we need to build capacity to maintain the momentum of such innovations.

Given the projected spurt in Asia-Pacific over the next 15 years, Singapore, a major aviation hub located in the heart of the region, has thought ahead to cope with the impending demand. Among other things, it has invested in the expansion of Changi Airport, built up related infrastructure and continued to train the workforce.

To increase the talent pool, industry players must collaborate. Building capabilities through joint projects ensure skills transference, eventually growing and strengthening the entire aviation ecosystem.

Thales, which has been in Singapore since 1973, has been collaborating with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore over the last few years, such as through memorandums of understanding signed at the last Singapore Airshow, followed by another inked last September at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) event in Montreal to jointly develop an open Air Traffic Management digital architecture for Singapore.

The aim is to build the digital capabilities in aviation, which will also nurture local talent and develop home-grown solutions that address the challenges of an increasingly complex and congested airspace. Collaborations unite the best resources from the government and private sector, and must continue as they benefit the entire industry.

Indeed, aviation has come a long way since the Wright brothers made their first successful flight in 1903, inspiring an aviation journey that has dramatically transformed in over a century to include unmanned aircrafts and AI, among others.

We are now living in a highly inter-connected world where the aviation industry must consider the global impact, brought on by increased demand.

How we shape the conversation, from pushing the boundaries on innovations that are secure, safe and also considers the environment, and growing talent to build capacity and expertise, can determine how we continue enhancing the aviation space in a sustainable manner, for all.

  • The writer is country director and CEO for Thales in Singapore.