On the slender wings of the tiny Pipistrel Velis Electro ride some of the greatest the hopes of the aviation industry — and the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA). That’s because as the Canadian and global aviation sectors emerge from a three-year pandemic battering, they must change — slashing their climate-change-driving emissions while finding the new pilots, controllers and maintenance engineers they need to meet the urgent demands of new growth.

WISA was created to help the sector do all this, and experts from every University of Waterloo faculty are working hard to find new technologies, strategies and innovations to make aviation — as the institute’s name signals — sustainable. And backing up these experts is Waterloo’s impressive and inspirational technological infrastructure.

The Pipistrel Velis Electro is one of the most exciting examples of this. Not only is it the only type-certified electric plane in the world, but it is also the only one of its kind in Canada. Far from being a novelty or even a potential precursor to cleaner technology down the runway, the Pipistrel could quickly become a significant player in reducing aviation industry emissions by becoming a go-to trainer for student pilots in the place of conventional, internal-combustion powered airplanes.

According to Dr. Paul Parker, a professor at Waterloo’s School of Environment, Enterprise and Development and the leader of WISA’s Pipistrel project, “In the future, every flight school that uses this e-plane will, over 20 years, see a 1,000-tonne reduction in carbon emissions. Electric is not the whole solution but it’s part of the solution.”

Indeed, WISA’s two-seater, single-engine Pipistrel can help blaze a more sustainable trail for the entire global aviation industry — which produces three per cent of the world’s carbon emissions and must overcome a variety of challenges to meet its net zero by 2050 goal. The 300 student pilots enrolled at Waterloo make it Canada’s biggest university-level flight program.  Parker estimates 80 per cent of the flight hours each student requires could, in future, be done in the Pipistrel, despite the fact that a single battery charge limits its flights to just over 40 minutes. There’s still a lot of work to do, however, before that training happens.

After the University bought the plane with a Canadian Foundation for Innovation Ontario grant in partnership with the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC), it was delivered to the Region of Waterloo International Airport last October. Since then, it has been going through the rigorous certification processes with Transport Canada that would clear it for flight, then flight training.

“I’m hoping we might fly it by the end of April,” says Bob Connors, the general manager of WWFC. “We’re excited by this and the next year of research to see what aspects of flight training it’s suitable for.”

Despite the understandable buzz around the Pipistrel, it’s far from the only revolutionary technology employed by WISA. Dr. Derek T. Robinson’s aircraft of choice is a SkyRanger unmanned aerial vehicle — better known as a drone. And whatever you do, don’t mistake his drones for toys. For years, this associate professor in Waterloo’s Geography and Environmental Management Department has used drones to collect very high-resolution data about natural systems to help people make decisions related to usage of land for farming, residential developments and even watersheds.

Now he’s using drones to advance WISA’s groundbreaking research in no fewer than three projects that have been funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. In the first, Robinson is using drones to record the glare or reflection in the sky from solar panel farms to “better understand where and how solar panels can be placed at airports to reduce their carbon footprints and not affect pilots during landing and takeoff procedures.”

In the second project, the team is creating “coordinated swarms of drones to conduct rapid infrastructure or aircraft inspections that can reduce the downtime at airports and other industries and ensure the safety of flight operations and aircraft at airports.”

Finally, he will be creating a digital twin of the Region of Waterloo International Airport that includes information about the surrounding landscape, its soils, the airport buildings and their greenhouse gas emissions. “With these data we can answer a number of research questions about the facilities and their operations,” Robinson says. “But we can also create a virtual environment that can be used to test other types of questions and can be used by others,” for example “to test out the effects of solar panel placement.”

And that’s just the beginning of making the aviation sector more sustainable. The tiny equipment that goes into drones could impact “the production and miniaturization of equipment on piloted aircraft,” he says, potentially leading to lighter, smaller, more energy efficient airplanes.

As impressive at Waterloo’s Pipistrel and drones are, WISA’s technology can drive new research breakthroughs without leaving the ground. Anyone who steps into the ALSIM AL250 flight simulator in the WISA Sim Lab at Waterloo’s main campus will see why.

From his chair in the flight simulator’s cockpit, WISA Aeronautical Research Coordinator Dr. Kamal Ben can take Waterloo aviation students on simulated flights to digital versions of hundreds of airports around the world. To anyone sitting beside him, the experience truly feels like being airborne as they seemingly ascend, veer in one direction or another and, eventually, swoop in for a virtual landing.

Gazing down, they face a dashboard of brightly illuminated instrument controls. To each side, they see wings. And looking forward they could, depending on Ben’s programming, be flying through a simulated day or night in simulated conditions that might include rain, high winds or heavy cloud cover.

While this, like other flight simulators, can train pilots, Ben uses this one for a different reason — to operate the simulator as a service to several teams of researchers and graduate students’ whose research is aimed at making pilot education and aviation more sustainable. Led by WISA-associated professors and their graduate students, one study involves tracking the eye-movements of aviation students to discover how they respond in life-like situations. Researchers are interested in discovering where they look, what they focus on, and how they learn to scan the instruments in front of them.

“The purpose is to artificially reproduce a certain configuration of flying,” Ben says. And from the trials he assists with in hour-long sessions involving two to four students a day, Ben supports several teams of researchers accumulating valuable information. In future, these findings could show that experienced pilots may not need perfect 20/20 vision, thereby enabling the retention of older pilots at a time when the industry faces a chronic shortage of qualified personnel. Or the work could lead to the development of new, possibly faster, training systems that could reduce the high costs of flight training for students while making their education safer and more secure.

As her WISA colleagues build a new, more sustainable aviation industry, Dr. Mihaela Vlasea is pioneering ways to build new, more sustainable, planes. And she’s doing this in Waterloo’s Multi-Scale Additive Manufacturing Lab.

Metal additive manufacturing — popularly known as 3D printing — produces parts by using a wide range of technologies to fuse materials together. The range of products produced this way is vast and could be utilized in a wide variety of industries, including the aerospace sector.

While this lab is a separate entity from WISA, it’s currently partnering with the institute on several vital initiatives. One project deploys high-strength aluminum alloy powders that are produced using an inexpensive, environmentally-friendly micro-milling process to create light-weight, high-performance aerospace parts by using laser powder-bed fusion. Another project aims at making aerospace components using a new class of titanium alloys that are themselves created in a low-cost process that generates no direct greenhouse gas emissions. A third project is developing sensors for assessing temperatures and strains in turbine blade applications for the aviation sector.

An associate professor in Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering, Vlasea is a passionate advocate for the capabilities of the MSAM lab, and its vast array of more than $25-million worth of research infrastructure featuring “all the classes of metal additive manufacturing technologies.” They include laser-powder bed fusion, electron beam melting, binder jetting, metal-infused filament, nano-material jetting and directed energy deposition.

“Environmental sustainability, supply chain resilience and cost-efficiency are high-priority global challenges for the future manufacturing landscape, particularly in the aviation and aerospace sectors,” Vlasea explains. “Metal additive manufacturing can address the three challenges. It enables the fabrication of complex-shaped designs … that cannot be manufactured using any other conventional manufacturing technologies.”

It’s one more way Waterloo and WISA can transform aviation. Or as Parker says, “Incremental changes will lead to fundamental changes.”