WISA and NAVBLUE: Aboard the flight to aviation sustainability

WISA and NAVBLUE: Aboard the flight to aviation sustainability

In 2021, R+T Park tenant NAVBLUE and Waterloo Institute For Sustainable Aeronautics announced a five-year program to solve aviation sustainability challenges using applied research and innovation.

When you think of the University of Waterloo, many technological innovations come to mind. Researchers, professors, and students at the University have been changing the way we live and work, from the first internet search engine to the latest in quantum computing. But while the University is known for mechatronics, computer science, and quantum, there is one area that the University is changing that isn’t as well known—aeronautics.

That’s starting to change thanks to the Waterloo Institute For Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA) and its founder and director, Dr. Suzanne Kearns. Dr. Kearns is a leading aviation academic whose work focuses on education and improving pilot performance. 

Dr. Kearns is also a pilot who brings decades of real-world experience to the University and WISA. She started her pilot training when she was 15, learning how to pilot airplanes and helicopters. After graduating high school, Dr. Kearns attended college in North Bay, where she flew helicopters in the bush. 

At the time, there were no separate facilities for male and female pilots, so Dr. Kearns could not find employment after finishing helicopter training. She decided to complete her airplane training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL. After graduating, she completed her master’s degree in human factors and systems engineering.

“About 70 to 80 percent of aviation accidents are primarily caused by pilot error. Human factors and systems engineering the science of why that happens,” Dr. Kearns said.

In 2004, Dr. Kearns returned to Canada to complete her Ph.D. and began teaching at Western University in London, ON, which started the first university aviation program in Canada. After teaching at Western for 12 years, Dr. Kearns moved to the University of Waterloo in 2016 after the University started its aviation program. 

“Many people don’t know that the University of Waterloo has Canada’s largest pilot training university program with nearly 300 student pilots on campus. My role is to support them with some of the academic courses associated with their degree,” Dr. Kearns said.

In addition to pilot training, Dr. Kearns saw opportunities to have researchers across the University look at how they could improve and advance aviation and aerospace. 

“I started collaborating with other professors and that’s what grew to become WISA,” Dr. Kearns said. “We’re taking all of the amazing research strengths across the University of Waterloo and looking at how those apply towards challenges associated with aeronautical sustainability.”

When most people think about sustainability, aviation isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It’s a mindset that Dr. Kearns said she is hoping to change.

“When people think of green applications, it feels like it’s at odds with aviation because the greenest thing for aviation to do would be to park all the airplanes. So we’re trying to answer what sustainability means because it’s not just about environmental considerations. It’s about meeting the needs of today without sacrificing the future generations ability to meet their needs,” Dr. Kearns said.

Dr. Kearns and WISA are looking at ways to improve sustainability in aviation in three pillars: environmental, social, and economic. Economic sustainability looks at optimizing and improving aircraft, airports, and routing efficiencies. Social sustainability looks at optimizing the social benefits of aviation to facilitate people moving around the world and a strong focus on the aviation workforce.

“There is a tremendous wide scale shortage of almost every aviation professional group. So we look at any training innovations, including using technologies like virtual reality and supporting equity, diversity, inclusion, so we can have a more vibrant workforce,” Dr. Kearns said.

The last pillar is economic sustainability which looks at how to ensure aviation and aeronautical industries can make money and sustain themselves. There’s more to environmental sustainability here too. Cybersecurity threats from bad actors and interference from next-generation wireless technologies like 5G are significant issues affecting industry players, from airplane manufacturers to airports. 

While some technologies are threats, others can potentially open new avenues to sustainability, including machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“We’re looking at how AI and ML can be used in place of large scale wind tunnels. You could potentially certify new airframes through data analysis more affordably and much more quickly than traditional methods. This touches several academic disciplines,” Dr. Kearns said.

WISA’s work on aviation innovation and sustainability research has help from beyond the ring road surrounding the University through a partnership with David Johnston Research + Technology Park tenant NAVBLUE, the Airbus’ Flight Operations subsidiary

The Waterloo-based company develops Flight Operations & Air Traffic Management solutions and services for airlines, airports, and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and is a wholly-owned subsidiary of aerospace leader Airbus. In 2021, NAVBLUE and WISA announced a five-year program to solve aviation sustainability challenges using applied research and innovation. 

Logan Jones, Analytics Manager at NAVBLUE, said that making aviation more sustainable is an obligation that NAVBLUE takes seriously. There is a goal within most of the aviation industry to become net-zero by 2050, and Jones said that a lot of work is needed to get there.

“Aviation has always been driven by efficiency. But in order to get to net zero by 2050, there’s a lot more to do. As part of its decarbonisation journey, Airbus is working on longer term projects involving electric aircraft and hydrogen aircraft. As the operational and software arm of Airbus, NAVBLUE has been tasked with figuring out what we can do now to make more efficient use of airspace and aircraft to reduce emissions as much as we can,” Jones said.

The partnership with the University and WISA will enable NAVBLUE to tap into research across multiple academic disciplines. Jones said there are projects where NAVBLUE can leverage the University’s researchers, including machine learning and advanced algorithms that can improve routing and fuel efficiencies. 

“The knowledge and the competencies that exist at the University of Waterloo—just down the road from us—can be applied to aviation to make the airline network more robust, leading to less flight delays, or to make our flight plans more efficient, leading to less emissions,” Jones said.

Partnering with the University brings NAVBLUE full circle to its campus roots. Erin Appleby, Vice President, Transformation at NAVBLUE, said that it was the proximity to the University of Waterloo and computer science graduates that helped create NAVBLUE’s first major product, the flight planning system. 

“Our founders were in Waterloo for the talent that was at the University. Fast forward 25 years later and here we are today working with the talent at the University because the research that happens here is a catalyst,” Appleby said.

Like Dr. Kearns, Appleby hopes the partnership with WISA and its work to drive aviation sustainability will help bring more awareness to Waterloo Region as a global aviation innovation hub. 

“A lot of people are surprised to hear that Airbus has a presence here in Waterloo, and not a small presence, a major software development division, building software that helps over 500 airlines around the world run their operations. We want that presence to be known in Waterloo and to show how valuable it can be to the city where you have someone like Dr. Kearns who is trying to build this aviation ecosystem,” Appleby said.

Dr. Kearns said that Waterloo Region is uniquely positioned to truly become that global aviation innovation hub that Appleby mentioned. The Waterloo Regional International Airport is owned and operated by the regional government, which is committed to exploring how that infrastructure can connect to other industries in the community and drive sustainability innovations. 

“We have a potential for the impact that we’re having to be not just about the University and research, but to be broader and more inclusive of the entire region,” Dr. Kearns said. “My dream, and I think there’s quite a few other leaders in the region who would agree, is that we’ve got all of the pieces for Waterloo to be a global hub for innovation in this space. There’s a few places in the world that are hubs for aeronautical innovation—and I think we’ve got that potential here.”