Today, aerospace companies are embracing an ever faster rate of innovation in order to keep pace with future challenges. AEROSPACE talks to CHARLES CHAMPION, FRAeS, Executive Vice President Engineering, Airbus about why today is a dream for aircraft engineers designing the airliners of tomorrow.

As EVP Engineering Charles Champion is responsible for is responsible for research & technology, overall product architecture and concept development, the design office, integration & flight-testing and continued product airworthiness. (Airbus)

AEROSPACE: You were at the RAeS in 2016 to give a keynote speech about innovation. Can you give a taste of what your talk was about?

CC: What's interesting with innovation is that a few years ago we were more focused on what would be the next shape of aircraft, and a lot about aerodynamics and so forth. Now, innovation is much broader. We see the effect of innovation even in our business and also I would say we see different ways of working compared to what we were doing a few years ago.

We still have the traditional research and technology, but we are also encouraging the art of innovation, which is about putting existing ideas together in order to deliver new approaches to what we are doing in terms of aircraft. It is pretty interesting! We see also, many trends, not only related to aircraft, but related air traffic management (ATM). There are more and more requirements coming from the environment to have a sustainable approach to developments. There are many more drivers than before and, in fact, innovation is going much faster than it used to.

Airbus flew the A350-1000 on 24 November last year. (Airbus)

AEROSPACE:  Yet it seems at the moment, the aerospace industry is focused on incremental upgrades, re-engineering and cabin tweaks. When do you see the next big leap in civil airspace occurring and what do you think that will be?

CC: We always have to be prepared, so of course we are in the comfortable position of having just delivered the A350 a couple of years ago. We had the first flight recently of the A350-1000. We've got all these A320 new engine options and last year we were awarded certification of the A321neo. We've got the A330neo this year, but we still have to prepare for the next generation. When of course, depends a lot on the market, it could be 2025 in terms of entry to service, or it could be 2030. Depending, of course, on the time, you have to develop different solutions and mature different types of technologies.

We have to work on several horizons at the same time. One which is improving our existing products. Another one which is being prepared potentially for 2025 and another one which is being prepared, potentially for 2030. So I think it's interesting. It's not as if you already knew which aircraft you had to develop when. We don't know which one and when, but we need to be prepared, hence, also the strong investment in the ‘Wing of the Future’ and other initiatives in order to be ready.


The return of supersonic flight?

Airbus partnered with Aerion in 2014 to help develop its AS2 supersonic business jet. (Aerion) 

AEROSPACE: There seems to be a renewed push for civil supersonic flights at the moment. Boom Aerospace comes to mind and Aerion, which is supported by Airbus. Do you think this is credible given the noise, recent restrictions have got more stringent?

CC: It seems that it's coming back, but we always saw that potentially there could be a case there for potential business jets. People who are willing to pay a premium in order to go faster. But honestly, it is clear that with the air traffic doubling every 15 years, this is not the solution to the traffic route. The solution has to come from the aircraft and show how actually much more environmentally friendly, less fuel consumption, fewer emissions, and less noise and so on. Even though this is very interesting from an engineering point of view, (and I love engineering), I would say that the core of our activity should be around subsonic transport aircraft.


The future is electric 

Starting small - Airbus Groups E-Fan is paving the way for larger, more capable electric aircraft. (Airbus Group)

AEROSPACE: As an airframer, what are your thoughts on future propulsion? Open Rotors still seem about 20 years away. Is it possible we might just jump directly to distributed hybrid, electric propulsion?

CC: On that one we have a roadmap and I think actually, this is one of the reasons why innovation is accelerating now. When you look at what has been achieved in the automotive industry over the last five and 10 years, it's incredible. Now, you've got manufacturers who are disrupting the industry with totally new electrical cars. Of course, this is also pulling the technology forward and a typical example is batteries. It's clear that as we fly, we need to carry the weight of the batteries and with the weight of the batteries today, having an all-electric aircraft is a bit over the horizon, particularly for large transport aircraft.

This is a journey, so we started with e-Fan, which is a twin-fan aircraft developed by Airbus Group, potentially to develop a trainer. Of course, there's a difference between a two-seater trainer that will fly if you ask today and carrying passengers over some distance. As an intermediate step we are working on a more intricate aircraft with hybrid propulsion. We are working with the engine manufacturers like Rolls Royce, along with Siemens in order to see what type of power technology you could put into an aircraft.

When will we see that? An A320-sized aircraft will be beyond 2030, very clearly, nevertheless, we could see that coming before on a small, commuter aircraft. In partnership, we are also working with our different engine manufacturers. We are still looking at the contra-rotating open rotor. The challenge on this one is to make it work, not only in terms of fuel consumption, but also in terms of noise and all the other aspects as we stated with integration onboard the aircraft.

We are also working towards an ultra-high bypass ratio engines. Already today, with the A350 and the new Trent XWB engines, you see a very large fan and a very small core, which does give you a very high bypass ratio and reduce the fuel consumption. The trend is really clearly in that direction that with very large fans, then the way you integrate the engine on the aircraft is of the essence. We do have to still put it under the wing or close to the wing. Or you consider hanging it at the back like the used to have on the aircraft in the '60s. This is the kind of stuff we are looking at. We are working closing with engine manufacturers, because it's clear that the very large engine, the way you hang it on the aircraft means that you have to integrate the engine, the nacelle, the pylon and the wing in a much more integrated manner than we do today, where we just plug the engine under a pylon under the wing. This will also bring new interfaces.

Airbus E-Thrust hybrid electric concept with Rolls-Royce features distributed propulsion (Airbus)

AEROSPACE: Presumably the extreme reliability of engines today means that the maintenance issue of buried engines is no longer such a problem as it once was?

CC: It could work, yes. It depends on the size of the engine and it depends on the size of the aircraft. That's why in the Airbus 2050 concept plane we actually made that configuration which was more focused around noise and efficiency and we embedded the engines at the back of the aircraft. This meant they were naturally shielded by the tailplane, so that we could reduce the external noise. That could be one possible solution. It means it's pretty open in terms of configurations today for new aircraft. Honestly for 2030, for engineers, it's a dream because you can really look at lots of possibilities, lots of new configurations compared to the traditional one we see today since the A300.

This Airbus A320 3D printed spoiler prototype is inspired by natures lift, but strong lilypad. 

AEROSPACE: Turning to 3D printing or ALM (Additive Layer Manufacturing) there is a lot of excitement around it. Is that hype justified? What do you think the main obstacle is to adopting it?

CC: I think it's another string you can play when you actually manufacture aircraft. Not all aircraft will be 3D printed, even though I'm sure someone will do it in a garage some day! At least for us, it depends, of course, on the quantities. What's interesting with 3D printing is the 3D design. It's when you start to actually design your parts with 3D printing in mind, then you can deliver significant savings with a kind of a bionic shape like some brackets we did for the A350.

This is where you actually remove or just put the sufficient level of the material required, compared to more traditional milling or forging type of approaches. We already have a 3D printed part flying on the A350, but the plan is to actually certify the first A350 titanium parts this year. You have to certify not only the part, but the process and the whole approach. Clearly we will see this as one enabler, particularly to go faster and also to design some complex parts much closer to the actual optimum shape compared to more traditional manufacturing technology.


Inspiring the next generation 


The 2016 Airbus Fly Your Ideas global student has seen almost 5,500 students take part from 89 countries. 50 teams have now been shortlisted with winners being announced in May 2017. (Airbus)  

AEROSPACE: You've got a lot of innovation on the inside of an A350, but to the public or the media, it looks quite a traditional airliner. How do you engage and inspire young people into aerospace if there's no pioneering, Apollo or Concorde type project that looks significantly different or offers a breakthrough?

CC: That's an interesting one, because we asked ourselves that question - for the younger generations. The question, I think a couple of years ago was, "Do you still see yourself flying in 2050 or will Facebook, social media or whatever, mean flying and actually meeting people is of less importance than today?" Overwhelmingly, the response was, "No, no, we still want to fly. We still believe that we'll even fly more to meet people across the globe either for business, for family and whatsoever."

On that basis, we said, "Okay, the younger generation has to be part of the solution then." We launched our student FlyYourIdeas (FYI) contest, first to attract talents towards engineering and aerospace engineering, but also to get from them ideas on how they would see flying tomorrow. We use that as really kind of an enabler to actually understand better what aerospace will look like in 2050. I think this is important because when you see all the media of today and the way we are working, and the younger generation are working, this will definitely have an impact on the experience you have to provide when you fly an aircraft.

Team Multifun won FYI 2015 with this idea for harvesting energy from composite skin flexing. (Airbus) 

AEROSPACE: FlyYourIdeas is now in its fifth year. What are some of the best ideas from students been?

While we have yet to select the winner of the latest FYI, but what is interesting, last time, is there were ideas that can go from ‘more intelligent material’, to how to manage the birds at the airports and find new ways to actually settle the birds so that they don't disturb the airport flow. The span of ideas is extremely wide and that's what makes it really exciting.

Interestingly, last year’s winning team were at different universities and they only met physically for the first time at the event of Fly Your Ideas, which meant they were able to work together as a team across the world using all the tools we have today, without actually having to physically meet.

It just gives an idea on the new ways of working we have in the industry now compared to where we were years ago.


Back to basics with engineering judgement

Is there still room for the sort of individual engineering flair that produces aircraft like the Junkers F13 - the worlds first all-metal transport aircraft (  

AEROSPACE: On a related note, today's aircraft have got huge international design and engineering teams, there's lots of focus groups, extended marketing studies and computer modelling. But are we missing something now today, perhaps lacking the personal ‘gut feeling’ of yesterday's engineers? The Marcel Dassault, R.J. Mitchell, Joe Sutter etc who look at an idea and said ... ‘I know that the focus group doesn't agree with me, but this is going to work’.

CC: I wouldn't mix the focus groups in there, but I would say the focus group is more a question of engaging more. More and more we have a collaborative approach. We have co-innovation with our customers, the airlines, to actually bring them onboard to understand what they would like and proposing them solutions. We've got ‘proto spaces’ where you can actually test some ideas rather than waiting nine months for the answer, which is not really what the people were expecting.

You prototype, do a kind of proof of concept. All of this are new ways of working, design thinking also, which actually we didn't do in the past and which really bring value. Afterwards, what is required is always engineering judgment. If you only rely on tools like computer simulation in order to design today's aircraft, you will fail. What the end, what we have to learn is basically, what are the orders of magnitude, what are the important parameters, what are the drivers? A good chief engineer always knows basically it is a trade-off between weight, performance, fuel consumption, and range. With these kind of elements, they can quickly judge if an idea is worth pursuing or not.

This we need to develop and of course, one of our priorities, particularly at Airbus, is that people are not just only trained in one discipline, but you create a path in order to prepare for the chief engineers of tomorrow. Really, engineering judgment is even more important now than it used to be, because otherwise you can be, as you quite rightly point out, overwhelmed by tools and actually losing sense of what an aircraft really is. It's really back to basics when it comes to an aircraft.


Airbus is working hard to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. (Airbus Group) 

AEROSPACE: In attracting fresh talent into engineering, you were on a panel at the RAeS Amy Johnson lecture at Farnborough were diversity was debated. What more needs to be done in encouraging women into engineering and aerospace?

CC: A lot needs to be done on that one, I'll tell you. We developed a diversity award with the Global Engineering Deans Council (GEDC), in order to try to signal that there are good initiatives at the level of universities and engineering schools, but they need to do more in order to attract diversity and inclusion. It's not just gender diversity, it's diversity in a wider sense. If you look at basically hiring policy in engineering, our target is to have at least 20% female engineers. Actually, we managed 25%, but without having a specific quota, it's more a question of a target, all things being equal, to actually promote and encourage managers to select the women engineers.

The challenge, of course, is the number of women in engineering and in aerospace engineering. Here in the UK, we still have a lot to do, because if you look at the figures, we are probably around 10%-ish, if not below. In other countries it's closer to 15% or up to 20%. What you see is that with some universities or schools that really take a proactive approach, the number of women in aerospace engineering is much higher than the average. Of course, it's a long pipeline, it starts from STEM, it starts from attracting young girls between maybe the age of eight to 12 towards engineering.

Interestingly, one of the diversity awards, in Australia, they developed courses for schools for girls around Lego robotics, so that actually young girls could have fun and test and put together ideas and also robots in order to achieve a goal. What came out of that is fairly refreshing, is that girls realised that engineering is cool and interesting.

It's really bringing them from the beginning towards science, then engineering, and then aerospace engineering. It's a long road really, it's not just like that. You really need to constantly drive that effort. We are, as far as we can, contributing to that by encouraging, of course universities, and also in our hiring policy, enough towards the development of engineers once they've joined the others.


The wing's the thing

An A340 test aircraft is set to fly this year to test natural laminar flow technology. (Clean Sky 2)

AEROSPACE:  Moving on, post-Brexit, the UK is still aiming to keep its places as a centre of excellence for wings. What technologies and innovation will a Wing of the Future incorporate?

CC: I think there are several aspects. On the performance side, we are contemplating a more natural laminar flow. We've been talking about that for decades, but now we will be actually flying in the framework of the European Clean Sky Program, using an A340 with two external wingtips which have been designed for natural laminar air flow. This test A340 should fly early this year and will allow us to check natural laminar flow in flight in real conditions up to Mach 0.8 or 0.85 and see how laminar we are and also test the robustness of the design towards actual operations. This could then lead us towards naturally laminar wings for the next generation of aircraft.

The UK is set to play a key part in the 'Wing of the Future' with a new Airbus engineering test centre in Filton this year. (Airbus)   

AEROSPACE: Is the secret to natural laminar flow down to the shape, or is it down to coatings?

CC: No, it's the shape and it's also the nature of the surface of the wing. It does not include the external coatings. Now, for example, coatings, that's something else that we're looking at. For instance, ‘riblets’ on sharks and dolphins skin reduce drag in the water.

For aircraft, these riblets, which are about 50 microns high and 100 microns wide, initially we tested applying them and it wasn't very practical. Now we're developing a robot that would actually put that polymer on top of the paint of the aircraft and also make the shape of the riblets at the same time. It would be a more industrial operation to install riblets. With riblets, you could save up to 1% overall aircraft drag reduction in widebody aircraft such the A350 and the A380.

That's another example, and then afterwards, beyond the shape and the performance, it's about manufacturing. It's about manufacturing of composite wings at much lower cost and a higher rate than today. Our mission is that the next wing basically fits into the same industrial targets that the existing A320 wing, which has been manufactured for the last 30 years.

It's a very ambitious programme to actually work on the simple solutions for toolings, simple solutions for the manufacturing itself and develop also, a wing that can be built easily and ramped up easily to 60 aircraft a month. It's a totally new dimension compared to the way we've been designing and manufacturing wings until now. That's what we intend to develop in Filton and in Broughton in the framework of the Advanced Product Concept Analysis Environment (APROCONE) ATI project.

AEROSPACE: Do you think that the wing of the future will end up being completely 3D printed?

CC: On that one, I would be more cautious, because basically when you've got those high quantities, 3D printing is probably not the solution. You really need it when you have shapes or some parts where you can get the benefits out of the design, but otherwise, I believe that you will not totally 3D print the wing in the future.


Innovating faster

Airbus' A3 start-up lab is now working on project Vahana for a VTOL 'flying car' (Airbus Group)  

AEROSPACE: More generally, we talk about innovation and digitisation projects. It seems a lot that the aerospace companies today are trying very hard to be Silicon Valley startups, with innovation labs, Big Data etc. Meanwhile, Facebook, Google and Uber and are now dipping their toes now in aerospace with UAVs, aerial taxis and space projects. What's going on here? Are you worried that one day Google will decide it's going to build an airliner?

CC: I would say we're worried, but we have to understand that at Airbus Group it is actually pushing us to go faster. Airbus Group formed the A3 (cubed) establishment in Silicon Valley, just to be part of that overall system and understand the new ways of working. In that framework, we are developing new ideas, totally independently of the main business. For instance, it can be on the business concept with an Uber for helicopters, because you've got helicopters sitting on the ground. If you actually could use these assets, maybe you could deliver some benefit to people who want to fly and not drive.

Also, we are looking at an autonomous vehicle that can carry someone. The idea is to test that the approach for Uber could move very quickly to the proof of concept. You iterate fast in order to move to the next level of a project and come up with a prototype. Test the prototype and so on and so forth. It's not so easy to do for a compete aircraft, which is extremely complex and has many redundancies. You've got a very tough certification process.

Nevertheless, with this type of approach, you can go much faster, even in developing a new cabin or a new system onboard the aircraft. You could actually potentially use this kind of constructive approach to faster improve your aircraft.

When it comes to big data, honestly, we are at the beginning of what we can do. For instance, we did a project with a major airline and just by analysing the big data and making correlations, you're able to see some elements of operational decision-making for the airline which would avoid, failures at start-up. Which means you improve your dispatch ability just by understanding your fleet.

Thus in complement to more traditional maintenance systems onboard the aircraft it opens up new avenues in terms of correlation of data and trends with technical elements in order to better maintain your aircraft. If you look at all the data which is onboard the aircraft, in many cases, you can actually predict that the failure will occur rather than just having to wait for that failure to occur.

Since, if you are measuring an actuator and you see that actuator is consuming more energy than usual, you can deduct from that that something is going wrong with the actuator and potentially, you would have a failure of the actuator. If you manage pre-emptively, preventatively to change that actuator now, maybe you will avoid the cancellation of a flight three weeks from now. This are typically the type of big data, but if you manage to get it, it is easy to store it and analyse it. Then you can take new approaches in terms of quality maintenance for the aircraft.

This is just one example, but there will be many others. If you look at what you can do with data, it opens the doors everywhere in terms of basically using that data for the benefit of the design, but also the operations of the aircraft. Not to mention, of course the passengers and all the Big Data associated with passengers. There is a huge potential there.


The return of X-planes

Airbus' THOR 3D printed sub-scale demonstrator is set to fly in 2017 in a new six-propeller configuration. (Airbus)

AEROSPACE: Going back to the hardware side again - you also mentioned that the next generation of airlines is completely open what they might look like. So for any new airliners of 2030s that might use a radical configuration, (whether a BWB or distributed propulsion) do you think we're going need subscale demonstrators or X-planes to de-risk this?

CC: I think that at one stage, we need demonstrators, yes. More and more R&T is focused also around demonstrators. These can be subscale and have simple functions as part of our analysis of new configurations. Airbus has developed THOR, ('Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality’) sub scale demonstrator which is 3D printed. You can fly, you can change the configuration by 3D printing another tail, another nose, another wing. This is just to test concepts and we are currently upgrading it now, to test the configuration with six propellers to see what that type of configuration, (which could work for hybrid aircraft), would actually mean in terms of flight control and controllability.

You’ve got different types of demonstrators depending at what stage you are, which allow you to progress. Particularly for Airbus, we are integrating technology, so we use this type of demonstrators to really understand the interdependencies and go toward the next step. Yes, we will see that, yes we will do more demonstrators and possibly in the future one of those will be wing demonstrator, to see what the wing of the future could look like.

Maybe it won't be the final shape, but at least it will give us a clear understanding of how to reach our goals in terms of producability, production ramp-up and also from the technical angle. It's an interesting question, because really demonstrators are not everything, but they can accelerate traditional research and technology.


Pilotless airliners

Will the airliner of 2050 need a human pilot on the flightdeck itself? (Airbus)

AEROSPACE: Finally, you mentioned autonomy. So are pilotless airliners, (which may be feasible perhaps from an R&D perspective), but do you think passengers will ever accept them? Will it just come down to ticket prices?

CC: I think there is a trend in that direction and we cannot ignore it. What we are looking at it is in terms of potential single pilot operations or how to actually support the existing pilot more with respect to their workload. I share your questioning about passenger acceptance, but it could come sooner than what we believe. Definitely if you take freighter aircraft, (because I don't believe the freight is really worried about not having a pilot onboard). Typically, this is an area where we could see some pilotless aircraft in the coming years. I would say we are more looking at that on this side. The key question, when you fly an aircraft, is basically, adaptation to meteorological conditions en route and management of the ATM and air traffic control. These are the two elements, because from a purely technical point of view, we can fly an A320 autonomously tomorrow. You would just have to change a few switches so that you can retract and extend the landing gear with a box instead of doing it by hand, but these are details. Typically today, with a lot of pilots using a CAT IIIB, landing, you really fly from A to B in automatic mode.

From an engineer's point of view, we are not far away. The question is, basically, how do you integrate that in your role traffic management and all the conditions that you can find for a long flight? Of course, afterwards, it will be eventually passenger acceptance. I believe the road to demonstrate pilotless airliners flight for passengers is still few years away.

Tim Robinson
10 January 2017