Impact on people and society

Flying as a great plus or a major evil

Programme leader Rui Roosien on the Impact on People and Society knowledge programme

There’s been a lot of fuss about aviation during recent years. Should we keep on flying without restrictions so that we can trade products and see the world? Or should we in fact fly less, to reduce the harm done to people’s health and the impact on the climate? We have to face up to differing interests and a never-ending stream of accurate and false information on the internet. Polarisation awaits. If this discussion is to be untainted and the correct choices are to be made, it is important to have complete, reliable information. That is what the NLR knowledge programme Impact on People and Society focuses on.

What exactly does the Impact on People and Society knowledge programme involve?

“In this programme, we look at the consequences of aviation at airfields and in their vicinity. We’re looking at things like noise nuisance, safety, air quality and local emissions. In addition, we look at mobility as a whole. What does aviation bring us, in both economic and social terms? And what does it cost? Aviation lets people see the world easily and relatively affordably, as well as making trade possible. On top of that, the Netherlands – with Schiphol as the hub – is a major transit country. There are downsides to that too, for instance in terms of emissions from aircraft, noise nuisance and the impact on nature and the climate. The public worry about things like that.”

“NLR has in the past largely focused on research into technological solutions and innovations. In this programme, though, we’re looking at the social themes associated with aviation – how it affects society. Aviation is a topic that often comes to the fore in various political and other debates, in both a positive and a negative light. It’s important that the information used in such debates is correct, so that governmental authorities, the commercial sector and the public can make decisions based on facts that are scientifically underpinned. Given our role as a research institute, we want to use this programme to make science more accessible, for instance by reporting understandably on the significance and the background.”

There are three cornerstones to the programme:

  • The first focuses on the social debate. The aim is to provide factual information for the social debate in a comprehensible and accessible form.
  • The second cornerstone looks at technological development, in particular relating to aviation in the future. NLR looks at things like the technological options for improving safety or tackling noise nuisance.
  • The third concentrates on airports and their surroundings. For instance, NLR develops tools for setting up and maintaining good cooperation between the parties involved and all their different interests.

About the programme leader

Rui Roosien works at NLR in the environment and sustainability department, where he is the programme leader of the Impact on Humans and Society programme. He loves long-haul flights to distant destinations but does worry about the potential consequences.

“It’s important to make tough choices now so that aviation will in future be able to stay within acceptable limits for people and for the natural world. We’ve got to allow for the fact that the public are worried about emissions, as well as for the people who are employed in aviation.” Roosien sees it as his personal mission to get anyone and everyone involved in the discussion about the future of aviation.

Could you give an example of a project that is in this programme?

“Drones are very much the up-and-coming thing, but we don’t yet know much about how much noise nuisance these airborne vehicles create. We can carry out research like that within this programme, in collaboration with other programmes such as Unmanned and Autonomous, of course.”

“Another project focused primarily on looking at what aviation and the automotive industry can learn from each other about automation. How can we make sure that humans and machines work well together? We focus above all on research into how the switch in control from human to machine and vice versa can be done smoothly.”

“We’ve also carried out various studies in a European context for making the impact quantifiable. The social impact is an important target in a range of research projects. We try to see what the best way of measuring and representing it is, so that future research will have more real-world information to get to grips with. We’ve been looking at a scoring system, for instance, to determine what the relevant means of transport are for specific purposes. What operations can be carried out profitably with drones and when might a different mode of transport be better? Understandings like that are important for implementations and for the impact of innovations.”

The aim is to get aviation to fit in better with what society demands.

What are the mission and vision of this programme?

“The aim is to get aviation to fit in better with what society demands. There are several facets to that. I think it’s important to listen properly to what local residents and other parties involved are saying, for example, otherwise you won’t get the necessary backing. At the same time, aviation is blamed incorrectly for things that aren’t true. A plane isn’t necessarily more harmful per kilometre than a car that runs on petrol – it’s just easier for a plane to cover a lot more kilometres. It’s crucial that the people involved are given the correct information. There are pros and cons to aviation and we need to get a clear picture of it all before major decisions are made.”

Enabling safe and seamless Urban Air Mobility (UAM)

What is NLR’s role in this?

“Our role as a knowledge institute means we carry out thorough research into various aspects of aviation. The name NLR – the Netherlands Aerospace Centre – tells you our origins, knowledge and expertise. We don’t have any direct economic interest in whether aviation shrinks or expands, so we’re able to gather and analyse information reliably, which benefits the debate within society. For me, an important part of this is that the experts at NLR step into the limelight themselves a bit more, explaining the research. That will let us make sure that the figures and information are interpreted correctly.”

Why are studies like these important for society?

“These research projects are above all important for policymakers and for the commercial sector. They give a clear picture of the pros and cons that allows a suitable strategy to be chosen. It’s also important that everyone in the Netherlands remains aware of the facts. That lets you form a properly grounded opinion and even change your behaviour if needed.”

Providing correct information is becoming more and more important

“Huge amounts of information can be found online. Whatever your opinion may be about a given topic, there’ll always be information available that backs your point of view. That makes providing correct information increasingly important. There are various ongoing consultations here, including one with the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, to see if we can work together on providing information. I hope that we’ll also be able to do the same in future with other institutes such as TNO, RIVM and the technical universities, for example. When we at NLR write a report about emissions from aircraft, for example, we don’t always know exactly what that signifies in terms of health effects. That facet is more typically something for the RIVM. Each party has its own domain of expertise and collaborating in the provision of information is what will let us get the most complete set of details out there.”

Read more about all the NLR knowledge programmes.

Impact on people and society

Video: Experience aircraft noise in a virtual environment