New university institute focused on the sustainable future of aviation


Through Lisa Gordon | June 21, 2021

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 30 seconds.

A brand new institute at the University of Waterloo will harness the power of academia to address the social, environmental and economic challenges that threaten the sustainability of aviation and aerospace.

The Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA) – officially approved by the university’s Senate on June 21 – will serve as a portal for industry stakeholders to access the university’s vast knowledge network. The new organization will be led by Suzanne Kearns, Associate Professor of Aviation at the University of Waterloo in the Faculty of Environment.

Alsim photo

Kearns is a strong advocate for aviation within the university and has been heavily involved in its degree programs, established in 2007 in partnership with the Waterloo Wellington Flight Center (WWFC) at the International Airport of the Waterloo region. Since their inception, enrollment in geography and aviation, science and aviation university programs has grown steadily. In 2020, around 125 first-year student pilots were admitted. Today, Waterloo offers the largest college-level aviation program in Canada with approximately 300 students actively studying in the four-year program.

The school’s graduates predicted a bright future against the backdrop of an expected global shortage of pilots, maintenance personnel and all manner of aviation support workers. By early 2020, the industry was expected to nearly double its passenger and freight capacity by 2036.

Then COVID-19 erupted in March 2020. Kearns saw his former students find themselves out of work and operators struggled to survive.

“I had advocated for youth support and the pilot shortage, but the pandemic has changed the narrative of what our industry faces,” she explained. “I spent about a month thinking about how to support the industry. I realized that I am an aviation person integrated into a university. So, I started to think about how I could mobilize research at the university to support the sector.

For Kearns, the current industry slump is the perfect time to innovate for a prosperous future.

“From my perspective, aviation was not sustainable before the pandemic,” she said Skies. We were facing labor shortages, growing environmental challenges, and the growing integration of technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence (AI). I think in aviation we were trying to figure out how these things could fit into our industry. “

She realized these themes of people, environment and technology aligned with the three pillars of any sustainable industry: social, environmental and economic. Then the vision for WISA crystallized in his mind.

The new WISA organization will be led by Dr. Suzanne Kearns (photo), Associate Professor of Aviation at the University of Waterloo in the Faculty of Environment.

Kearns has started hammering the campus sidewalk, meeting with hundreds of people over the past 18 months to build support for his vision. She was greeted with enthusiasm by all faculties of the university, the deans of environment, science, engineering, health and the arts, as well as the rector, supporting the institute. More than 30 faculty have expressed interest in leading graduate student labs that will research everything from workforce development and electric trainer planes to machine learning and AI.

Now that it has been officially approved, WISA will serve as the school’s portal to all things aviation and aerospace. As a non-profit part of the university, the institute will support its research costs and graduate students through income and grants from industry partnerships. A few partnerships have already been confirmed.

Kearns explained WISA’s financial model: “If I was an operator or manufacturer with a challenge, I could come to the institute to work with professors to answer that question. If partners want to work with the institute, there are sponsorship levels. We have seed funding for the first few years, but after that it’s up to the institute to show that it’s bringing value to the industry.

Kearns, who will be the director of WISA, will work with three associate directors, each of whom is aligned with a pillar of sustainability. Dr. Elizabeth Irving will focus on the Social Sustainability Pillar which will study topics such as Human Factors in Aviation, Skills Based Education, Diversity and Inclusion. Dr Paul Parker will lead the environmental strand, examining topics such as the development of electric trainers, sustainable aviation fuels and the design of more efficient airports. Finally, Dr Shi Cao will focus on economic sustainability as it aligns with technology – figuring out how to apply the university’s vast technological know-how to things like machine learning, drones, AI and augmented and virtual reality.

In mid-June, WISA acquired an Alsim AL250 advanced flight simulator equipped with an engineering package that will allow university researchers to collect precise data from a variety of training-related studies.

The university is developing a marketing and communications plan for WISA and a smooth launch is expected later this summer, followed by a more formal event in the fall. In the meantime, Kearns is busy putting together the institute’s board of directors and will be hiring a manager as well as a simulator technician.

She sees the new institute as a “living laboratory” where the university can harness its existing capacity and apply it to aviation and aerospace.

“Some of the big challenges we face, we don’t have the tools for aviation. So let’s bring in top experts with a unique set of tools and create a more robust toolbox to help our industry, ”she said.

Photo by University of Waterloo

Beyond research, Kearns looks forward to supporting the development of the industry’s talented next generation while securing their future.

“Aviation sustainability is about the environment, but it’s much more than that,” she said. “We must meet the needs of today without sacrificing the needs of future generations. Environmentalism was very far removed from the culture of aviation when I was riding. But the reality is that the increased use of sims and skill-based training is affecting all three levels of sustainability: social, environmental and economic. You train students on what they particularly need, which tends to be less costly for the learner. Sims are electrically powered, which helps you reduce noise and carbon emissions, and they tend to generate higher profits for the school. Together, we will find creative and winning solutions.

As the home of Canada’s largest college-level aviation program, the University of Waterloo has easy access to an ecosystem of researchers and student pilots.

“Academia can serve industry – that’s the message I’m trying to get across,” Kearns concluded. “There has never been a better time to mobilize academia to serve the sector to support a strong recovery. “


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