Flying the environmentally friendly skies
Researcher Suzanne Kearns pioneers the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics
For as long as she can remember University of Waterloo Aviation professor Suzanne Kearns dreamed of flying, and at the age of 15, she began training for a career as a pilot. On her 16th birthday — the first day she could legally drive a car — she flew solo for the first time.
If it could fly, Kearns was determined to master it.
At 17 she slept for months in a Toronto hangar just to get her helicopter license, becoming a wunderkind in her hometown of Wiarton, Ontario. The local paper joked, “Imagine that, flying helicopters and still wearing braces,” she says.
Back then Kearns could never have imagined doubting her dream job. But as she, and the world, woke up to the fact that air transport is a key contributor to climate change, an unsettling truth began to sink in.
“Given that relatively few people on Earth have the opportunity to fly, aviation’s outsized impact on the planet is unacceptable,” she says. “But, despite its drawbacks, I truly believe that aeronautics is a force for good. So, I have a new dream, and that’s to support aviation's movement towards sustainability.”
In fall 2021 that new dream came one step closer with the launch of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA), making Waterloo, and Canada, a pioneer in reforming an industry currently accounting for more than 2 per cent of global carbon emissions.
“Unlike the auto-industry, research being done around the globe on how we can reform the sustainability of the aeronautics sector is still an emerging area,” Kearns says.
But what exactly is sustainable aeronautics?
“Sustainability goes beyond environmental considerations to include social and economic factors,” says Kearns, who first began exploring how sustainability-related to aviation several years ago when she created an Aviation Sustainability course in Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment.
Social sustainability is possible when the aviation industry has a competent and efficient workforce – a challenge pre-pandemic as the sector was facing global shortages of pilots, air traffic controllers, and maintenance engineers. This shortage was exacerbated by the lack of diversity in the sector, with only about five per cent of pilots being female and fewer People-of-Colour.
“I remember what it feels like to be the only woman in the classroom, and to feel like your dream profession doesn’t have a place for you,” Kearns says. “Supporting equity, diversity and a sense of belonging in the industry is a critical sustainability consideration, supporting the viability of the future workforce.”
For Kearns, interdisciplinary collaboration is key to WISA “I have been continually inspired by the passion and talent of my academic colleagues, uniting across disciplines to identify impactful research.” WISA-affiliated researchers include social scientists and psychologists working in tandem with its engineers, technologists and environmentalists.
“Social sustainability also includes professional competency which supports safe and efficient operations,” she says. “Today, 70-80 per cent of aviation accidents are caused by human error. WISA’s psychologists, vision scientists and kinesiologists examine factors, such as eyesight, fatigue and decision-making to build a comprehensive foundation of interdisciplinary research with the goal of passenger safety.”
WISA brings together close to 75 researchers from all six University faculties. Its advisory committee includes Chris Hadfield, decorated astronaut, author, and pilot and industry experts from organizations including Transport Canada, NAVBLUE, an Airbus company, and the National Research Council among others.
WISA researchers are targeting outcomes that apply the latest technology and social science in ways that will have an impact on policy, manufacturing, and training.
Kearns went into teaching at the age of 24 when her career prospects as a commercial pilot evaporated following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I know first-hand, a more financially resilient aeronautics sector is better for workers, and better for stabilizing global markets,” says Kearns, who points out that the air transport sector is responsible for close to $6 trillion in international trade.
Economic sustainability is more than solvency and job security.
“Additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, can create new custom-designed plane parts made one at a time, any time and just in time,” she says. “This saves both time and resources. This kind of work is already being done at Waterloo. What WISA does is mobilize that research towards aeronautical challenges.”
“I understand people feeling guilty about flying because of the climate impact,” Kearns says. “But the truth is, it’s a challenging sector to decarbonize and often there just isn’t a substitute to flying. Our delicate COVID-19 vaccines arrived by plane, as do trillions of dollars of goods. And in our now globalized world, air travel is the only feasible way to connect with our loved ones living overseas.”
With environmental interventions occurring in the auto, housing and manufacturing industries, aviation’s relative share of global emissions will only grow.
Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, where WISA is housed, is Canada’s largest faculty devoted exclusively to sustainability. Its experts work at the intersection of nature, human behavior and technology.
“Environmental sustainability is where WISA’s transdisciplinary DNA really shines,” Kearns says. “We have applied mathematicians using algorithms to improve logistics, engineers improving aerodynamics, and chemists innovating batteries and renewable fuels. All of this adds up to lower carbon emissions, which is a central goal of ours.”
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic the global aviation industry was surging — accounting for 87.7 million jobs worldwide, with $3.5 trillion in economic impact, and supporting 4.1 per cent of global GDP. As the pandemic spread across the globe, the aviation industry ground to a halt.
“As we emerge from closed borders and lockdowns, aviation is playing a critical role in reigniting the global economy by transporting goods, humanitarian aid and connecting us in person once again,” Kearns says. Additionally, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Assembly recently committed to a new aspirational goal for international aviation of net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050.
Achieving this will require technologies, innovative practices and future leadership to drive environmental, economic and social prosperity. WISA is uniquely positioned to work in partnership with industry and government to address these global challenges.
Since launching, the WISA team has taken many steps towards this mission. They’ve developed a new approach to master’s and doctoral studies with the launch of the Collaborative Aeronautics Program that enables students to add a focus in air transportation research to their studies. They’ve also brought Canada’s first commercially available type-certified electric aircraft to Waterloo and hosted more than 200 industry, government, faculty and student attendees at the inaugural one-day Sustainable Aeronautics Summit to discuss sustainability innovations in aviation, aerospace and space.
“The big challenges facing the future of air transportation will require collaborative solutions. No single institution or field of study can address these issues alone. We must equip future leaders as experts in their chosen academic field with aeronautical training to catalyze innovative research – and foster industry and government partnerships towards impactful solutions.”
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is centralized within our Office of Indigenous Relations.