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Shaping the skies of the future: Airbus CTO

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-12-01 10:59

BEIJING — French novelist Jules Verne might have imagined the future in his science fictions, but a modern fan is actually defining the future of flight.

Paul Eremenko, 39, is chief technology officer of Airbus and he has a mission to explore the future. He admits to being "probably one of the luckiest men in the world".

"There could not be a more exciting time for aerospace than today as there are many probabilities for the future," Eremenko told Xinhua in an exclusive interview.

And he believes the aerospace giant should work with the world' s most populous nation to define the future.

China, he said, is a country "full of energy, great ambitions and resources in its massive scale".

China pivotal

China has made remarkable achievements in the aerospace industry. "It is no longer catching up with the world, but the leader in multiple technological domains," said Eremenko.

He congratulated the maiden flight of the C919 passenger aircraft, and added China is also leading in digital technology, software and other cutting edge fields.

He was speaking after announcing the establishment of the European firm's innovation center in South China's Shenzhen, its second after the A3 Airbus Silicon Valley Innovation Center.

Eremenko was CEO of A3 before his appointment as Airbus CTO. He is amazed by the unique innovative ecosystem in "China's Silicon Valley" of Shenzhen.

"In this dynamic city, you can see how fast China is moving forward and how talented young Chinese are," said Eremenko.

In July, Airbus appointed young Chinese entrepreneur Luo Gang as CEO of the Airbus China Innovation Centre, where initiatives in autonomous flight, unmanned vehicles, and in-flight experience are underway with local partners.

"Airbus looks and invests in the future. That's its job as a global aerospace giant. And China will surely become a pivotal power in defining the future of the world's skies," said Luo.

Airbus is tracking more than 200 core start-up companies worldwide, many in China, in aerospace areas such as drones, supersonic business jets and satellites. They attracted more than 5 billion euros from 2010 to 2015.

Skies of the future

More than a century after the Wright brothers' first flight and six decades after the shift to jet engines, the world has entered "a third revolution in aerospace", said Eremenko.

The upgrading of technologies in fields like digitalization and electrification increasingly intercept and impact the aerospace world," said Eremenko.

Airbus is focusing on two development areas: large commercial aircraft, which are "the heart of the business", and vertical flight.

In large commercial aircraft, its core interests are in electrification, connectivity, and digital design and manufacturing.

"The fully electric large commercial aircraft is not feasible with the constraints of today's energy storage technologies. However, a hybrid-electric aircraft is not out of question," he said.

Airbus has a record of aggressive technological innovation. Its hybrid-electric E-Fan aircraft, driven by two 30-KW motors, successfully flew across the English Channel under battery power in 2015.

A joint program is underway with Rolls-Royce and Siemens on the "E-Fan X", a 2-mW hybrid-electric prototype.

"I'm confident that we are taking a significant step in exploring the driving power for future commercial aircraft. And we will surely get it as the technologies evolve extremely fast," said Eremenko.

It might even change the traditional configuration or appearance of commercial aircraft.

But the "building blocks for future commercial aircraft" include a rich set of options for Airbus to improve efficiency and the passenger experience, alongside creating new business models and value-added services for customers and passengers.

Eremenko and his team are also working on a "changeable" passenger cabin at the A3 Innovation Center.

In the "Transpose" program, innovators are revolutionizing the current "fixed" cabin with modularized functional segments that would allow for a children's playhouse, a shower or even a massage in flight.

"Airlines could redesign and reassemble the cabin configuration with a totally different style," Eremenko said.

"Like uploading or downloading apps on your smartphone or playing Lego, it will not be far away in the future."

Spirit of exploration

Eremenko began his career at a start-up drone company, and then worked at Google, Motorola and the Pentagon as an innovator and technology executive.

"I was so happy to come back to the aerospace industry, to my roots and passion," he said.

The son of a former Soviet mathematician, he grew up in the United States and became fascinated with aeronautics while reading Jules Verne as a child.

"I received my pilot license on my first day of the legal age at 17, even before I learned how to drive," said Eremenko.

One of Fortune magazine's Top 10 Tech Leaders of 2015, he has abundant experience with drones, experimental aircraft and Google's Ara modular smartphone. He understands the whole process of bringing concepts into reality with design and manufacturing.

But from a business angle, he sees the commercial aviation sector's future in making air travel more efficient and profitable.

"In a foreseeable time, we will not do that in the commercial aircraft sector," he said, citing Vahana, a single-passenger, self-piloted electric vertical taking-off and landing aircraft, which is being developed by A3.

It is part of the Airbus' blueprint for the future, with electrification, urban air mobility, autonomous design and digital manufacture, connectivity and data analytics, as well as new business models.

It is a challenge to balance business with innovative technologies, with both risks and possibilities.

He is also in an industry that attaches incomparable importance to safety.

"It is not an either-or choice of innovation and safety, but a question of the mindset. I think both are imperative, and aviation engineers are flexible creatures capable of bridging them," said Eremenko.

"It is helpful to leverage experience from China, especially in the unique innovation ecosystem in Shenzhen, in the culture of risk-taking and the grand rapid prototyping."

It takes him at least 10 hours to fly from his base in France and Germany, but China draws him nearly every month.

"It is the most exciting time for aerospace. And the best decision is to leap ahead by joining hands with China."

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