SATAVIA’s DECISIONX capability enables eco-conscious aircraft operators to prevent condensation trails (contrails), which cause a net climate warming effect almost double that of direct engine emissions. Using SATAVIA’s technology, aircraft operators can forecast, prevent, and offset negative climate impacts caused by condensation trails, eliminating up to 60% of climate impact per flight. But how does this problem arise, how does the solution work, and what challenges does the company face?
Global warming in the blue skies above
Have you ever looked up and admired the beautiful white trails left by aircraft in the blue sky above you? In fact, although they may look lovely, they are extremely damaging to the environment. Condensation trails, or contrails, account for about 60% of aviation’s climate footprint, about double that of direct engine emissions; or, put another way, that’s 2% of total human climate impact. A big problem.
Condensation trails, or contrails, account for about 60% of aviation’s climate footprint… that’s 2% of total human climate impact.
But there’s hope. Just 2% of flights account for 80% of the contrails. That’s why a company called SATAVIA, based in Cambridge, UK, is determined to eradicate the problem through a mix of data analytics and climate science.
Dr. Adam Durant founded SATAVIA in 2013. Adam is a professional scientist with a background in volcanic clouds, who became interested in aviation due to the Icelandic eruption in 2010 and the grounding of so many aircraft due to volcanic ash. About two years ago, he turned his attention to aviation’s impact on the climate, having built core technology alongside Rolls Royce to examine the impact of ice crystals on jet engines. After a key research paper was released in 2021, he turned his attention to the significant climate impact of aircraft condensation trails (contrails) and is now set on a revolutionary mission to transform the relationship between aviation and the environment.
“Our vision is simple” says Durant, “to eliminate 2% of human climate impact through smarter, greener aviation.”
How does the problem arise and what is the solution?
Continuously changing atmospheres generate wide variations in localised conditions at aircraft cruise altitudes. Contrail formation is associated with ice-supersaturated regions (ISSRs), whose distributions vary both horizontally (across 100s of kilometres) and vertically (across 100s of metres). When aircraft pass through ISSRs, the water vapour from jet engine exhaust triggers condensation trails in the form of micron-sized ice crystal groupings. Most contrails quickly disappear but a minority (around 5%) persist for hours, trapping longwave radiation within the atmosphere and generating surface warming equivalent to 2% of all human climate impact.
SATAVIA’s contrail prevention solution uses climate science, numerical weather prediction modelling, and data analytics to forecast areas of likely contrail formation (see Fig 1).
SATAVIA uses these forecasts to analyse planned flight paths generated by operators like commercial airlines, utilizing atmospheric modelling to quantify predicted climate impact arising from contrail generation. SATAVIA then recommends adjustments both vertically (altitude) and horizontally (waypoints) in order to help aircraft avoid ISSRs where persistent contrail formation is likely.
Post-flight, SATAVIA compares planned with actual flown trajectories to quantify the climate benefit achieved via contrail prevention. This calculation lays the basis for the generation of achieved climate benefit into tradable carbon credits, incentivising operators to engage in contrail prevention. SATAVIA is currently undergoing accreditation for the offset process, working with a range of stakeholders (e.g. airlines and air traffic navigation service providers).
“DECISIONX digitises the atmosphere from surface to space,” said Dr Adam Durant, “generating uniquely actionable intelligence for a suite of aerospace applications. Our DECISIONX:NETZERO platform offers unique capacity to forecast contrail risk and enable contrail prevention on a flight-by-flight basis.”
Who are the partners in this solution?
As well as working with industry, academic and specialist bodies to test, improve and scale the solution, SATAVIA is working with Etihad Airlines to put contrail prevention into practice in everyday commercial aviation. The Etihad collaboration kicked off with EY20 Sustainable Flight, a ground-breaking initiative in October 2021 that demonstrated the potential for greener flight operations. On the EY20 flight from Heathrow to Abu Dhabi, Etihad incorporated SATAVIA contrail prevention intelligence with a range of other solutions from varied stakeholders, to cut per-flight climate impact by up to 72% compared to 2019 levels.
SATAVIA is working with Etihad Airlines to put contrail prevention into practice in everyday commercial aviation.
Mohammad Al Bulooki, COO at Etihad Aviation Group, explained, “[EY20] demonstrated the possibility of incorporating contrail prevention alongside a range of pre-flight, in-flight, and post-flight activities, cutting our climate impact while maintaining day-to-day commercial activity… a genuine step forward not just for Etihad’s net zero objectives, but for commercially sustainable green aviation more widely.”
SATAVIA’s solution in action
SATAVIA is working with Etihad to undertake flight planning optimisation for contrail prevention. Each week, SATAVIA’s team analyses the Etihad schedule to identify contrail-forming flights (typically a small proportion of any fleet schedule) and then deploys its platform to optimise an individual flight plan for contrail prevention.
One recent flight, EY76 from Madrid to Abu Dhabi, implemented SATAVIA contrail prevention intelligence by flying under ice-supersaturated regions (ISSRs) (see Fig 2).
By preventing EY76 from forming contrails, the DECISIONX:NETZERO eliminated over 590 tonnes of CO2e by preventing harmful surface warming generated by downward reflection of longwave radiation. 2022 will see Etihad and SATAVIA collaborating day by day, cutting per-flight climate impact by up to 60% and blazing a trail for commercially sustainable green aviation.
What are the challenges?
To optimise flight paths and avoid contrail formation, aviation companies and other stakeholders incur marginal additional costs on a flight-by-flight basis. SATAVIA plans to overcome these costs by offering tradable carbon credits as an incentive for eco-conscious operators.
As with all pioneering, early-stage businesses, investment is critical. Durant has won over £5m grant funding for SATAVIA since 2015 from Innovate UK, Aerospace Technology Institute, and the European Space Agency. He also raised investment of £2.5m as of March 2022. He is now looking for larger Series A financing, and carbon credit accreditation will be a major factor in that process.
Durant has won over £5m grant funding and £2.5m in investment for SATAVIA since 2015 from, among others, Innovate UK, Aerospace Technology Institute, and the European Space Agency.
“We plan to quantify climate benefit for trading as carbon equivalent offset credits – a market worth at least $9bn globally, at a conservative estimate,” adds Dr Durant. “Contrail prevention is a fairly straightforward digital technology solution with incredible potential to move the sector towards net zero on relatively short timescales.”
To secure support and scale SATAVIA’s contrail solution globally, Durant and team are talking to legislators and regulators both nationally and internationally, as well as partner companies and academic institutes such as the University of Cambridge’s Aviation Impact Accelerator. SATAVIA also partners with leading cloud computer providers, such as Microsoft and AWS.
A faster way to reduce environmental damage
One of the main advantages of SATAVIA’s solution over other green aviation innovations relates to its immediate availability, in contrast to the years and decades required to develop new fuels, engines, and airframes. All in all, this is an exciting prospect for the environment, and although we may miss those lovely white trails in the sky, we will know their loss was worth it to help protect our planet.
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