Why Hampshire based Britten-Norman is betting on hydrogen
Thursday July 15th, 2021
Known for its enduring, no-nonsense, short take-off and landing (STOL) Islander – an aircraft it has been building since the 1960s – tiny Britten-Norman might seem an unlikely trailblazer in commercial aviation’s quest for sustainability.
However, the UK’s last surviving airframer is playing a key role in two government-backed technology initiatives to develop greener aircraft, and firmly intends to be “at the forefront of the electric aircraft revolution”, according to its long-serving chief executive William Hynett.
One, Project Fresson, sees the Hampshire-based company working with a consortium headed by Cranfield Aerospace Solutions to develop a passenger aircraft capable of being powered by hydrogen fuel cells. A demonstration flight is planned for September 2022.
Another, Project HEART – it stands for hydrogen electric and automated regional transportation – aims to demonstrate an autonomously-controlled and hydrogen-powered Islander on essential routes such as those serving the thinly-populated far north of Scotland.
While Project Fresson initially focused on developing an aircraft powered by on-board batteries, that path was abandoned, and Hynett believes that hydrogen-based technology is the “game-changer” that will allow commercial aviation to achieve its zero-carbon goal.
That became clear last year, as the partners behind Project Fresson began to scope out the potential of hydrogen fuel cells rather than using batteries. “It started to make sense,” says Hynett. “It takes away the need for charging. It takes away weight.”
Such is his confidence in Project Fresson’s progress that Hynett believes a hydrogen-powered aircraft could be Britten-Norman’s “core offering” by the end of the decade. “We are very comfortable that we could sell a hydrogen-powered aircraft in our market,” he says.
That market comprises mostly tiny airlines and public sector-run entities – there are some 230 operators of the nine-seat Islander around the world – serving remote communities from North America’s Great Lakes to the Falkland Islands, and from the Scottish isles to Pacific archipelagos.
Hynett believes a compact and simply engineered type like the Islander is “perfect” to pioneer tomorrow’s green technologies such as hydrogen power. “Opportunities for-longer range aircraft will happen through the work we do in short-range,” he says.
As well as collaborating on the green projects, Britten-Norman, which has Oman-based backers, has spent much of the pandemic period settling into new premises on the former RNAS Lee-on-Solent naval air base, now operated as a private airfield and aviation park by the local authority.
With production at between one and five new aircraft per year, Britten-Norman’s main business for now remains MRO and brokerage – sourcing used aircraft for customers, and usually updating them with new interiors and avionics at Lee-on-Solent.
Britten-Norman may have been offering essentially the same design for six decades, but the company has been a disruptor since former de Havilland trainees John Britten and Desmond Norman devised their simple transport piston twin that could be used on short runways, says Hynett.
Britten-Norman innovated 15 years ago when new compact and lighter surveillance equipment suddenly made it possible for much smaller aircraft such as the Islander to be developed into cost-effective special mission platforms, and the Defender variant was born, he says.
Its bet on hydrogen power is its latest challenge. “It will be a long journey – the regulators have no way at the moment of certificating an electric aircraft,” says Hynett. “But there is a clear political agenda when it comes to aviation’s emissions. Fail to go down this road and we’ll be left behind.”