From electric planes, optimized routes, and social equity, the new Waterloo Institute of Sustainable Aeronautics is leading the charge for a cleaner, greener, durable air transport sector

In the early 2000s, there was a growing awareness of carbon footprints amongst climate conscious folks. For instance, in 2004 BP unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” to show how our daily life — going to work, buying food, and traveling — fuels climate change.  

It can be argued BP was shifting responsibility away from their industry and on to consumers. It worked though, flight shaming became a thing and guilt-ridden vows to limit one’s air travel echoed through a million dinner parties. In fairness, it was the only thing for a carbon-conscious consumer to do.  

The University of Waterloo’s newest research institute, The Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA), believes the air transport sector can, and must, do more to bring the aviation and aerospace industries into the global climate movement. Flying, for all of its carbon consequences, is a fact of life in a global society, but there is an opportunity for the industry to change for the better and be more sustainable environmentally, but also socially and economically.  

“As we emerge from closed borders and lockdowns, aviation will play a critical role in reigniting the global economy by transporting goods, humanitarian aid, vaccines, and connecting us in person once-again,” says WISA Founder and Director Suzanne Kearns. “Now is the time to research, collect-evidence, and prepare a new generation of aviation professionals and innovate for a future in an industry in need of sustainable practices.” 

Born in Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, WISA arrives as a hub of sustainable aviation and aerospace research, technology, and education across the campus. WISA fosters transdisciplinary studies and cross-sector partnerships, focused on building a more sustainable future.   

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“To my knowledge there aren’t many industry-focused research centres working to make flying better for the planet,” says Jean Andrey, dean of Environment. “What makes WISA so special is that every faculty at Waterloo has expertise that can make the dream of sustainable flying a reality. WISA’s cross-campus researchers, engineers, planners, scientists, technology leaders and other professionals are all working together to lead innovations towards a sustainable future.”  

The Aviation industry is responsible for 2 per cent of global carbon emissions. “It’s significant,” admits Kearns. “But chances are your COVID-19 vaccine didn’t arrive by boat. There simply isn’t a substitute to some of the important roles aviation and aerospace play in making a more connected society.” 

By focusing on air transport sector innovations, and exciting discoveries in aeronautics WISA can inform evidence-based public policy. The key is getting industry and regulatory partners to collectively work towards evidence-based sustainable aviation and aerospace transformations for the sector in Canada and beyond.  

But what exactly is sustainable aviation? It’s a question Kearns gets asked a lot.  

“Well I think for most people electric planes and greener fuels come to mind. WISA certainly has researchers exploring those, but sustainable aeronautics is so much more,” says Kearns. 

Kearns knows the industry. She started flight training at 15, flew solo on her 16th birthday, and had her airplane and helicopter licenses on her 17th birthday (all the minimum age limits at the time). She was flying airplanes and helicopters before she could drive car. She has a duty to reform a profession she loves, but says, “it needs to focus on an aspirational vision for the future, and it will take strong partnerships and collaboration.” 

“For us there are three dimensions to sustainable aviation, the environmental aspect yes, but economic and social sustainability are also needed. This means everything from equity and diversity in the industry to more efficient logistics which save fuel and save money,” she says.  

WISA is already off to a great start. With support from the government, they recently brought a state-of-the-art Flight Simulator which will play an important role in researching pilot heath and psychology — with the added benefit of allowing students to get flight time without burning any fuel.    

“The industry needs a champion to work across-disciplines and deliver sustainable solutions addressing aviation’s environmental, social and economic potential,” says Jean Andrey, dean of the Faculty of Environment. “That’s why I find the work being done by the researchers at WISA so exciting. WISA is meeting our moment with ideas, action and industry impact it’s my hope the aviation industry will never be the same.” 

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