Episode 6 of Talking Engineering: An Interview with Dr Sandra Bour Schaeffer

Dr Sandra Bour Schaeffer is the Head of Airbus Demonstrators and the CEO of Airbus UpNext. In these roles, Dr Bour Schaeffer helps to shape the future of aerospace by using prototypes to evaluate, mature and validate new technological breakthroughs in space, aviation, helicopters and urban air mobility.

Dr Bour Schaeffer is highly focused on Airbus’ efforts to both reinvent and accelerate aerospace research and prototype development to achieve proof-of-concepts at scale and speed. To achieve this, she supports her team as they work with internal and external partners, identify and hire industry-leading talent, and boldly experiment to build the future of flight. Her passion for aerospace innovation is long-standing, having spent over two decades in the aerospace industry.

In addition, Dr Bour Schaeffer is an experienced engineer. She holds multiple degrees and licenses, including a Flight Test Engineer License from EPNER, a PhD in fluid dynamics from ISAE SUPAERO, an engineering degree from ISAE ENSMA, as well as a private pilot license. She also currently serves on the ONERA Board of Directors.

“In the midst of the biggest health and economic crisis our industry has ever faced, we are challenged to couple people’s passion for air travel with the necessary ecological transition towards zero emissions. We all must strive together in order to achieve our ambition of climate neutrality. We can rise up to this challenge to scale up with renewable energy, innovating with new technologies for the sustainable future of the environment and the industry.”

JH: What made you choose Aerospace Engineering as a career?

SB-S: When I was your age, my interest was rooted to a much greater extent in space than in aeronautics. And I was simultaneously very interested in medicine. I hesitated for a long time, not making up my mind, and in the end, I went to France to study aerospace and I don’t regret it. I cannot tell you what the trigger was, but I can tell you why aerospace, rather than any other field of engineering. That was because I dreamed of the moon landing, space shuttles, satellites and also the connection that aerospace allowed between people all around the world.

JH: What inspired you to get involved with Airbus and to tackle the goals of decarbonising air travel, and making it faster and more efficient?

SB-S: I began my career working for what was a really great aerospace company but very, very French and I longed for a more international environment. I really do believe in a mix of cultures and in the bringing together of different perspectives, different ways people have been trained and educated and different backgrounds – this is really what makes us strong. And I am convinced that Airbus wouldn’t be what it is if it were just a one-nation company. So this is the reason why I left the company I worked for previously and joined Airbus.

I have been at Airbus for more than twenty years and a few years ago, I went on to run one of our subsidiaries, Airbus UpNext. Airbus UpNext is there to pave the way for our future products and services and to look into break-throughs. Today aerospace is at the start of its fourth revolution and it is up to our generation to decarbonise the skies. I really believe that flying is a great asset – it transports people and goods, and so many different cultures meet each other thanks to flying. Aviation is a long-term industry. We need to act now to ensure that the future is a sustainable one.

JH: On the topic of decarbonisation: you must be looking at some very exciting technologies with Airbus UpNext. What are your opinions on the various decarbonisation technologies such as Hydrogen, Electric or other alternatives?

SB-S: We are indeed looking at different technologies. At Airbus UpNext we serve the whole of Airbus, company-wide, which covers Commercial Aircraft, Airbus Helicopters and Airbus Defence and Space. There is not one single solution and in fact, a range of technologies are likely to co-exist within the aviation ecosystem.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), a fuel derived from sustainable resources, is an extremely important part of the aviation roadmap to reduce our industry’s carbon footprint. It plays a key role in an effective carbon-reduction programme – all existing aircraft can already run on a SAF blend of up to 50% (as mentioned above) and we are currently exploring how to achieve flights on 100% SAF.

The main goal is to strengthen the development and use. In that respect we are committed to supporting a wide range of research activities to demonstrate technological readiness.

Hydrogen, for example, is one of the most promising zero-emission technologies because it can also be created from renewable energy and the only significant by-products are water and vapour. Hydrogen has a specific energy-per-unit mass that is three times higher than traditional jet fuel, which makes it an effective zero-emission energy source. However, as hydrogen has a lower energy density per unit of volume, we need disruptive solutions to integrate the technology into an aircraft.

Several sectors are pushing towards lower CO2 emissions and we are encouraged and believe the scale up in production of hydrogen required across all these industries is within reach. This will pave the way to hydrogen availability for aircraft in the 2030 timeframe.

The hydrogen concepts we are studying are for the moment mainly viable for intra-continental / short-haul routes, therefore it is likely that SAF (alongside other technological innovation evolutions) will remain one of the carbon-reduction solutions for wide-body long-haul aircraft long term.

JH: What are some of the other means of reducing the carbon footprint of air travel? After all, I know that alternative propulsion methods are only really one branch of the innovation which Airbus UpNext carries out. Could you describe some other technologies which you are looking at?

SB-S: Yes, you are absolutely correct. Alternative propulsion is only one aspect and other radical technological breakthroughs could be hosted on Airbus’ future zero-emission aircraft by 2035.

Of course, we have always ensured that environmental performance is a top-level requirement for the design and manufacture of any new aircraft, and it has always been an essential part of Airbus’ product innovations. Since 1990 (the Paris Agreement), Airbus has already managed to reduce emissions per passenger per kilometre by 50%. Now the focus is on achieving carbon-neutrality by 2050-2060.

The optimization of air traffic management is also a potential contributor of 8 to 10% fuel savings simply for today’s fleet of aircraft.

You might have seen what we are working on as part of our fello’fly concept – basically it mimics what birds do. They fly in V shapes to benefit from the energy of the bird flying in front, and the very same principle applies for aircraft. If two aircraft are paired for a trans-Atlantic voyage for example, an approximate 5% emissions reduction is possible through the second aircraft benefiting from the energy expended by the first aircraft (the second aircraft experiences less air resistance). To make this possible we are collaborating with air navigation service providers and authorities to optimize air traffic management and ground operations. This is just one example but very pertinent in today’s race to meet our zero emissions targets.

Of course, we are not working alone: together with the rest of Airbus, we are in discussions and partnerships with several stakeholders (airlines, airports, SAF producers, other industries using similar technologies) to act faster and stronger on its decarbonisation roadmap.

JH: Where do you think are the most difficult-to-solve challenges at present and I suppose a follow on from that is: what challenge would you like to see overcome in the next few years and decades?

SB-S: Maturing these “new” technologies in time for their certification to ensure they meet and surpass current airworthiness standards is certainly a challenge, as is their availability and the long-term scale-up. That said, we have been carefully observing the different technological ecosystems and we are excited by the incredible progress so far, making us convinced that the zero emission ambition is an attainable one.

JLH: Regarding the process of Innovation at Airbus UpNext, how do you decide on which areas of innovation to focus on next?

SB-S: You have to be selective and follow through on the ones we believe will be a real break-through for tomorrow. It is a decision that is not taken lightly. We regularly go through a number of proposals that come from internal sources or from the external world and we try to pick out the ones which are the most promising, the ones we feel could generate real break-throughs within our industry.

JH: Absolutely. Now looking back, I am interested to know what you consider one of the most significant engineering accomplishments in your career so far?

SB-S: Well, I am proud of many things we have done in the innovation environment and what we have built together in Airbus UpNext. Before my current position, I used to be responsible for the single-aisle NEO (New Engine Option) project, which was essentially the upgrading of our single-aisle fleet, which is our most successful product and is where we have the biggest market share.

I was also part of the flight test crew for the A320neo first flight, something that I am proud of to this day!

JH: What is proving to be one of the most challenging projects that you and the team at UpNext are currently working on?

SB-S: Let me talk a bit about fello’fly, which I mentioned earlier. Of course, there is the technological aspect to it, to be able to design an autopilot that would position the aircraft perfectly in order to benefit from the energy of the other aircraft in the formation, while still being safe. But the complexity of the project is not all about its technological aspect. It’s also about influencing air traffic management. Today, air traffic management in the civil aerospace world does not know how to tackle two commercial aircraft that are flying together. The whole system is built upon the concept of having a responsibility between the air traffic management leader and the captain of the aircraft. So that’s actually a great challenge in itself because you have to think in a completely new way about how you would operate the aircraft. Merely finding the technical solution does not solve the problem.

On top of flight operations, infrastructure also poses challenges to our demonstrators such as those associated with hydrogen. Currently, there is no way of feeding airports around the world with huge amounts of hydrogen. Also, note that liquid hydrogen must be stored at minus 253 degrees. So there is a whole infrastructure that must be built, which simply does not exist today.

All in all, there are plenty of challenges, depending on how you look at this specific topic. That’s what makes the projects at UpNext so amazing, because of the variety of things we have to look at and consider every single day.

JH: Thank you so much Dr Bour Schaeffer. To close, what advice would you give a young engineer considering a career in aerospace?

SB-S: Go for it! There is so much to do. Now is the right time. It is this generation that will take the ambition to decarbonise the skies and turn it into a reality . We need people who can think differently; think outside the box; use technologies that come from other industries and bring them into aerospace and come up with technologies that are not even invented today. There is so much to do and I can only encourage you to embark on this amazing journey and give it your all.

A note from the writer: A huge thank you to Dr Bour Schaeffer and her team for putting aside the time for the interview, as well as all of their help in editing in order to make the key points stand out. As ever, I really hope you enjoyed it. If you haven’t already, do make sure to check out the rest of the Talking Engineering Series which you can find by clicking on my name at the top of the article.

– Jasper Hersov

About the author