In her latest role, LeAnn Ridgeway takes on the sustainability efforts of Charlotte, N. C.-based Collins Aerospace. Why take on sustainability? We asked and she gave us the lowdown, saying, “[It’s] a once-in-lifetime opportunity to transform air travel as we’ve known it.”
Tell us about your background and how your previous roles at Collins inform your work in sustainability.
Prior to becoming vice president of sustainability for Collins in October 2021, I served as vice president of our Information Management Services business (formerly ARINC) for three years. This business is integral to Collins’ sustainability efforts because it enables us to use real-time data and predictive technologies to optimize flight routes and use less fuel. Our recent acquisition of FlightAware, which we combined with the IMS business to form our new Connected Aviation Solutions business unit, has enhanced our ability to improve route efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of air travel even further.
Previously, I also led the integration of B/E Aerospace, which is now part of Collins’ Interiors business. Here too, sustainability has been a key factor as we worked to produce lighter components across the Interiors portfolio. For example, use of advanced materials has enabled us to manufacture seats and monuments that offer up to 38% weight reduction compared to the previous generation.
Why is sustainability important to Collins Aerospace?
At Collins Aerospace, we believe that sustainability isn’t a choice — it’s an imperative. Quite simply, we must all do our part to reduce our environmental impact. And it’s not just a priority for us, but for all our stakeholders as well — including our customers, our employees, our shareholders, our regulators and the flying public.
As a leader in technologically advanced and intelligent solutions for the global aerospace and defense industry, we are in a unique position to make a positive impact on the future. Our resources, knowledge and experience give us a greater grasp of the challenges ahead — and above. This is a once-in-lifetime opportunity to transform air travel as we’ve known it.
With the coronavirus situation dragging on with the omicron variant, why is sustainability still important right now?
Collins has committed to support the aviation industry’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 as part of the declaration released by the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG). While that goal is still roughly 30 years away, the plans to achieve it are predicated on taking action now. The more we do in the near term, the easier it will be. Conversely, the longer we delay, the more the problem will be compounded and, ultimately, the harder it will be to solve as the curve only gets steeper over time. It’s inevitable that other, significant industry challenges like COVID-19 will arise and demand our attention as well, but we must keep our focus on sustainability at the same time. This is a huge challenge and a great opportunity. With aviation being a “hard to abate sector,” we must get started now.
What are some of the goals and timelines Collins Aerospace has set in relation to sustainability?
To support the aviation industry’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, we have several initiatives under way to advance enabling technologies as part of our sustainability technology roadmap, including:
• Connected Ecosystem – Creating more connected solutions for aircraft that use real-time data and predictive technologies to optimize flight routes and use less fuel, and developing artificial intelligence-based flight optimization and aircraft routing tools that leverage airspace information, atmospheric data, aircraft state and performance databases for dynamic route optimization.
• Alternative power sources – Working together with our sister Raytheon business, Pratt & Whitney and the Raytheon Technologies Research Center, we are supporting the development of hybrid-electric and all-electric propulsion systems. At the same time, we are designing More Electric aircraft systems to replace traditional hydraulic and pneumatic systems, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And we’re bringing new systems onboard aircraft that can accommodate sustainable aviation fuel.
• Advanced structures – Creating lighter, streamlined and more fuel-efficient architectures for aerostructures by using technologies that include thin acoustic structures, low-drag liners and environmentally friendly coatings to reduce drag.
• Integrated solutions – Our breadth of tip-to-tail solutions provides us with unique opportunities to combine systems across our portfolio. For example:
• Integrated aircraft doors – Smaller and lighter one-piece door structures for a more efficient use of space on the aircraft.
• Power thermal management solutions – In collaboration with Pratt & Whitney and the Raytheon Technologies Research Center, we paired advanced systems architectures with digital engine controls in new ways to increase vehicle thermal capabilities, reduce fuel burn, and lighten overall aircraft weight, all while optimizing engine performance.
Recently Collins acquired Dutch Thermoplastic Components (DTC). How does this acquisition help meet your sustainability goals?
DTC is a leader in the development and fabrication of structural thermoplastic composite parts. By acquiring them, we expanded our ability to use advanced thermoplastics to make lighter aircraft components for our customers, ultimately helping support lighter aircraft that are more fuel-efficient. With thermoplastic composites, we can potentially reduce the weight of aircraft structures by 20 to 50% compared to thermoset solutions and metallic solutions respectively.
In addition to improved product performance, thermoplastics are also more sustainable to manufacture. By using traditional materials like thermosets, aircraft parts are cured in large autoclave ovens that consume a massive amount of energy. With thermoplastic composites, we are using more efficient out-of-autoclave processes that greatly reduce energy usage. Switching from thermosets to thermoplastic composites also adds to energy efficiency as cold storage of thermoset materials is eliminated. Thermoplastic composites have higher resistance to impact and fatigue compared to thermosets. This means that parts will last longer, a key to future circular economies. Finally, thermoplastic composite products are fully recyclable at the end of their lifecycle, meaning that they can be melted, reshaped, and reused.
Do you anticipate more acquisitions to help meet your sustainability goals? If so, what will you be looking for in terms of a potential acquisition?
We’re always open to strategic acquisitions that make sense and augment our sustainability technologies. FlightAware and DTC are both good examples of this.
Talk about Collins Aerospace’s commitment to research and development in sustainability. Give examples of programs the company has implemented as a result of R&D in this area.
Collins’ annual research and development exceeds $3 billion, the vast majority of which supports technologies that drive improved sustainability. For example, as part of our Electrified Aircraft initiative, we’re developing electric motors for hybrid-electric propulsion systems. These systems, which combine fuel-burning engines with electric motors and batteries, can significantly improve aircraft fuel efficiency and lower carbon dioxide emissions, while also reducing noise and operating costs. It is estimated that large commercial and regional aircraft can reduce fuel burn by approximately 5% and 30%, respectively, when implementing hybrid-electric propulsion architectures.
Last summer, Pratt & Whitney Canada announced plans to integrate new hybrid-electric propulsion technology into a De Havilland Canada Dash 8-100 flight demonstrator. Pratt’s fuel-burning engine will be combined with 1 megawatt electric motor from Collins in a hybrid configuration that will optimize engine performance throughout the different phases of flight and demonstrate potential fuel savings of around 30%.
Collins has also teamed up with U.K.-based Hybrid Air Vehicles and researchers at the University of Nottingham on the world’s first zero-emission aircraft, Airlander 10. To achieve zero-emission operation, Airlander 10’s four fuel-burning engines will be replaced by 500 kilowatt electric motors provided by Collins. This will happen in a phased approach, beginning with the two forward engines in 2025 to achieve hybrid-electric operation, and the two rear engines in 2030 for zero emissions.
With the support of the French government and local communities, and in collaboration with local industry, we’ve also made a significant investment in Collins Propeller Systems in Figeac, France. The center’s mission is to find innovative ways to design and manufacture more sustainable, next-generation propeller systems for turboprop, engine-powered aircraft. Whether propeller-enabled engines are burning sustainable fuel or hydrogen in the future or are replaced with electric motors or hybrid-electric systems, propeller aircraft can play a large role in reaching fleet sustainability goals.
How are you incorporating your clients’ input into your sustainability goals?
We have conducted a Materiality Assessment to understand the sustainability priorities of our stakeholders, including not only customers, but investors and the communities we serve. In 2019, we joined 23 other leaders in aerospace, research organizations and associations across Europe to sign the Clean Sky 2 Joint Declaration of European Aviation Research Stakeholders to lead the way toward the decarbonization of aviation by 2050. In 2021, we signed the Letter of Intent (LoI) to join as a Founding Member of the currently forming Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking. As part of a unique, long-term collaboration with Airbus, Emirates Airlines, GE Aviation and Thales, and in partnership with the Dubai Future Foundation, we co-created Aviation X Lab to focus on technological innovations in aviation, including those enabling the next era of sustainable air travel.
There are many layers to sustainability. Can you talk about how you are addressing sustainability within your own facilities?
While we are working to develop more sustainable products, we are also focused on increasing the sustainability of our manufacturing operations. To that end, we are actively exploring and implementing solutions to reduce energy usage at our facilities, including:
• Solar energy is being utilized by seven sites worldwide to replace more than 3,898 MT CO2 and 4.3 million pounds of coal burned per year — equivalent to removing 855 passenger vehicles from the road annually.
• At our propeller facilities, in 10 years we have reduced our CO2 emissions by 45% while growing our business by 50% and our workforce by 20%.
• Improving our water management processes through rigorous oversight and conservation efforts. Depending on the geographic location of our sites and their natural environment, we optimize our production processes and reduce virgin water usage by recycling water and reusing reclaimed water and rainwater.
• Eliminating waste, championing reuse and recycling across our value chain to accelerate a more circular system. Recycling 94% of all waste generated.
• Since 2017, Collins has invested more than $35 million in the development of chemical alternatives. For example, we use Hexavalent Chrome processes on many of our products for wear and corrosion resistance. In response to maturing Global Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACh) regulations, we have qualified and placed into production Hexavalent Chrome-free alternative processes in our facilities in the EU and UK. These greener alternatives meet and/or exceed material performance of the Hexavalent Chrome processes being replaced.
What about sustainability in the air? How are you helping aircraft operators meet their sustainability goals? Does this include working on alternative power sources?
Alternative power sources are a key piece of our sustainability technology roadmap. In addition to electric propulsion, we’re also collaborating with Pratt & Whitney, our customers and industry partners to develop systems and solutions to enable 100% SAF-ready engines and aircraft. The breadth of Collins’ systems and technology across the aircraft also puts us in a unique position to collaborate with customers on hydrogen solutions.
In addition to our aforementioned technologies to help aircraft operators reduce weight and optimize fuel efficiency, Collins is also working to help reduce aircraft noise. By improving the acoustic-dampening performance of our nacelles, we can reduce the acoustic signature of aircraft engines. Creating higher-performing acoustic liners can extensively reduce the noise signature of the aircraft, which allows more efficient routing and opens more local airports to commercial flights.