A new UK Aerospace Technology Institute and the fruits of the Aerospace Growth Partnership were among the topics of discussion at the inaugural President’s Conference: ‘Aerospace Technology, The Road Ahead’ held on 22 October. TIM ROBINSON reports on the highlights. 

Whisper it quietly, but the word on the street is that the UK is either already in or just on the cusp of a new renaissance in aerospace. At first glance this may seem counterintuitive. Though the UK still is the second (or third depending on who you talk to) biggest aerospace industry in the world, its prowess lately had been under threat. With its biggest national prime exiting building civil airliners after the 9/11 downturn, savage defence cuts and new and established rivals aiming to whittle away the UK’s position, the prognosis, while healthy, was perhaps one of steady decline and irrelevance. The last major UK military aerospace project, Nimrod MRA4, ended in expensive farce, while final assembly of Europe’s new airlifter had been won by Spain. The retirement of the iconic Concorde ten years ago thus seemed a metaphor for the UK’s aero industry — a glorious history that was now past its best. In short, the UK recently had been relying too much on technologies first developed some 40 years ago. Its aerodynamics expertise in the past had led to the country being assigned the key role of wing centre of excellence for Europe’s Airbus project — a role that has only expanded as Airbus’ family of jetliners has grown and sales have expanded. It is worth noting that, at the launch of the A320, the wildest forecasts were for 600 aircraft — yet in October, Airbus secured the 10,000th order for an A320 family aircraft. Yet this reliance on jet engines, composites and wing technology developed over decades was under threat both from continental rivals and newly emerging globalised competitors. Additionally, until only a short period of time ago, politicians had decreed that the UK’s wealth creation would lie in city finance and the services industry. Manufacturing and engineering were dirty words. The sector could have been heading for neglect and steady decline.  

Enter the AGP

Two things have turned this around. The first is the far-sighted work by the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) formed in 2011 and its predecessor, the Aerospace Innovation and Growth Team (AeIGT) (launched 2002) a decade earlier in coming together and devising a national strategy for aerospace. These cross-industry and government groups formulated a strategic outline for a new UK national strategy. Where was the UK the strongest? What key niches did it occupy? What forthcoming trends and programmes do UK companies need to get on? What technologies will be needed? And finally — what would be needed to make this happen? The strategic thinking then provided a clear roadmap for the way forward. But would these good intentions be followed? The second factor was one of events. The financial crash of 2008 sent the City and services sector into freefall, and highlighted how unbalanced the UK economy had become. The parlous state of UK government finances and the demands of austerity meant Whitehall was desperate to identify sources of income for UK plc. Boosting high-value manufacturing exports would offer a way out of this crisis and rebalance the economy. It was, therefore, no great leap to see that the export-focused, hi-technology UK aerospace sector as one potential saviour. Each of these, by itself, would not have created the situation today, where there is a new UK Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) (to be operational from this month), a UK Aerodynamics centre (announced in July 2013) and the UK Government funding 500 MScs in aerospace engineering, to name but three. A strategic plan, by itself, lacking the urgency of a crisis perhaps, would have ended up in endless committee redrafts. 

Meanwhile, a panicked search by Whitehall for national industrial champions may have produced the wrong result or investment into areas in which the UK would not play to its strengths. A combination of long-term planning and foresight and the perfect storm of a global financial crisis has forged the conditions for aerospace to take a key role in the recovery and growth of the UK going forward. Publication of the AGP aerospace sector industrial strategy Lifting Off earlier in March 2013, implements the earlier AGP strategic vision Reach for the Skies, published in July 2012. The result is that the UK is now ready for a new renaissance in aerospace. The ‘March of the Manufacturers’ and emphasis on exports and engineering has driven these topics to the top of politicians’ agendas — with old hands saying openly that this represents the biggest support from the Government in generations. However, the crucial point is not the amount of money, nor the platitudes from current Ministers, but the fact that there is now continuity. For perhaps the first time in living memory, government support (to the tune of £150m a year for seven years with matching investment by industry) is now aligned more with the longer-term R&D cycles of the aerospace industry, rather than short-term election time scales. This, in turn, gives industry the confidence to plan and invest longer term too, and a virtuous cycle emerges. At the inaugural RAeS President’s Conference delegates gained an insight into this embryonic engineering and technological renaissance from companies and organisations involved. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.  

The view from Whitehall

Giving the view from the UK Government side of the equation was Sir John O’Reilly, Director General, Knowledge and Innovation, Department of Business, Innovation & Skills. He pointed out that the current focus on innovation & knowledge today had “not been seen for decades in the UK”. Noting that UK aerospace had been built on the success of remarkably long-lived platforms, he warned that Britain “must be ready for new platforms” — with any next generation 737/A320 successor set to dominate the industrial landscape. But, he said, the UK continued to still have a strong and vibrant research base. Despite having only 1% the world’s population, the UK accounted for nearly 8% of research papers and is ranked third in innovation according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation. He also pointed out that, in the world rankings of universities, there were only two countries on the top ten list — the US and the UK — highlighting the country’s academic excellence.  


The Aerospace Technology Institute

Harnessing and directing this power of innovation and knowledge for the aerospace sector will be the task of the UK’s new Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI). To be formally launched in 2014 and based at Cranfield Technology Park, the ATI, explained Gavin Campbell, Chairman Aerospace Technology Steering Group (and Director of Engineering at Bombardier Aerospace), will be the focus for UK’s seven-year aerospace R&D effort. Like Sir John Reilly, Campbell repeated that one key focus for the AGP was “positioning the UK for the huge nextgen single-aisle aircraft market in the 2018-25 timescale.” However, the £150m backing from Government was, he said, not “blind investment” but targeted funding that “plays to the UK’s strengths.” However, the ATI, although it is currently being set-up, already has projects underway, will not be a RAE Farnborough-type centre of labs and wind tunnels. Instead it will function as a ‘virtual R&D’ centre, to provide leadership, direct funds, provide technical analysis and disseminate progress, according to Campbell. It will operate over four streams: aerodynamics, propulsion, aerostructures and advanced systems. Said Campbell; its projects will range from small scale, to complex umbrella programmes and, finally, large-scale demonstrators that will merge several smaller ones. Though the centre is not intended to be the equivalent of NASA, ONERA or DLR, the ATI will also represent the UK in international aerospace R&T forums. One of the ATI’s research streams is already further ahead than the others, with the new UK Aerodynamics Centre. Frank Ogilvie, Chief Aerodynamicist, UK Aerodynamics, was at the conference to explain the vital part this will play. He noted that today’s ultra-efficient airliners build on aerodynamic research since 1969 — which has produced a roughly 40% improvement in aerodynamics. However, he explained that aerodynamics in the UK had become neglected, and fragmented in recent years — and had lost work to European rivals. Despite this, however, the UK still remained a powerhouse for aerodynamics. Replacing the wind tunnels at ARA he noted, would cost “£100s of millions”, with one ARA facility being the “single most useful transonic wind tunnel in the world.” Added Ogilvie: “We need to protect what we’ve got.” Among the goals then of the UK Aerodynamics Centre is to develop UK strategy for aerodynamics, produce a capability map and align with the AGP targets.  

Innovation sharing — the Aerospace and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network

Delegates at the conference also heard from Dr Ruth Mallors-Ray, Director Aerospace, Aviation and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network (AADKTN) on how this network promotes and makes connections between industry, academia, SMEs and other interested parties. Now embedded at all levels of the aerospace technology cycle, she revealed that AADKTN facilitated some 70-90 ‘calls’ a year, fostering innovation and making connections. Interestingly the AADKTN can reach out to other KTNs to enable the spin-in or spin-off of promising technology.  


The view from industry

The conference also heard from a number of speakers from industry, including EADS Innovation Works, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and, uniquely, Embraer, on the subject of technology and the road ahead. Sébastien Remy, SVP & Head EADS Innovation Works (which includes a UK R&D centre), noted the challenge to industry was that, with almost 30,000 new aircraft needed over the next 20 years, what would be the consequences of this in addressing environmental goals? He pointed to several upcoming technologies, such as ALM (additive layer manufacturing) with the potential to reduce component weight by up to a half, as being driven by these goals. Indeed the UK arm of Innovation Works is already (with GKN Aerospace) working on the challenge of how to certificate this potentially revolutionary technology for structural aerospace applications. Remy also highlighted joint work between EADS and Rolls-Royce in the E-Thrust project for distributed propulsion. This would see smaller, bearingless, magnetic ducted fans used and promises a step change in lower noise, fuel consumption and emissions. Also speaking at the conference was Director of Research and Technology at Rolls-Royce, Professor Ric Parker. He revealed that R-R has already started work on a high-bypass successor engine to its Trent family, named the RB3039. The engine, said Prof Parker, would be “quite radically different” and would “probably not” carry the Trent name. Parker also referenced the fact that Rolls-Royce already heavily relies on its university partner network for basic research. He stressed the long timescales inherent in aerospace — saying that material developed 20 years ago was only now entering service on the 787 with theTrent 1000. However, Parker also warned that, for any boost in R&D to be exploited and brought to market, the corresponding capability readiness level (to produce parts, start production etc) must keep up with the technology readiness level (TRL). Meanwhile, Chris Garside, F-35 Engineering Director, BAE Systems, noted the armed forces today face a much changed operational environment. 

Many more and diverse threats means that industry needs to improve its responsiveness and compress timescales. The key discriminators for this will be: informed decision making, rapid experimental prototyping, managing criticality and rapid deployment. Systems integration simulation, he argued, will be a key part of this, allowing budget conscious users to understand how a platform or system works before metal is cut. An example of this, he outlined, was F-35B shipborne rolling vertical landing (SRVL) showing how a virtual environment can de-risk and inform CVF design. Garside also highlighted ‘assured autonomy’ (such as BAE’s involvement with the civil UAV ASTRAEA project) as another emerging aerospace technology. Finally, bringing a non-UK, non-European perspective to the conference was Fernando Ranieri, VP Technology Development, Embraer, who described how this Brazilian company had made the leap into the big league of aerospace nations. Brazil was, he said “the only nation south of the equator capable of doing commercial, executive and military aircraft.” He asked — what is a ‘disruptive technology’? It was, he said, different from airlines, OEMs and passengers views. From the airlines view — is it radical aircraft configurations? Green and efficient propulsion? Flexible seating configuration? Advanced ATM? Meanwhile, from the OEM’s view — is disruptive technology more simulation? Advanced manufacturing? Aircraft health management? Or integrated modular avionics? Passengers too would see disruptive technology differently — whether it be precision luggage tracking, high-speed Internet, individual environment or an integrated mobility system. Thus, said Ranieri, there needs to be a trade-off between these competing needs and desires.  

A new ‘wing’ in three weeks — lessons from F1

The conference also heard from a member of another high technology sector reliant on UK aerodynamics — that of Formula 1. Dr Steve Liddle, from the Red Bull F1 team explained how the 10% of the annual budget of an average F1 team was spent on aerodynamics. However, the relentless quest for pole position, he said, meant that F1 cars for each season were developed in only five months. A brand new front wing design could take only three weeks from start to production level product. F1 has many similarities to aerospace — but Liddle also asked could the fast development turnaround also be used for UAVs?  



This conference was a unique insight into the future of aerospace technology and how the UK (and others) are ready to embrace it. However, despite the upbeat mood at the conference, there still requires a note of caution. First is that the UK’s competitors (and partners) are not standing still themselves. In UAS, for example, the US and other countries are quickly waking up to the possibilities of civil UAVs — a field that the UK has already been engaged with in ASTRAEA. In 3D printing, (ALM), others are working hard to productionise this revolutionary technology. Competition is fierce. Second is that sometimes high-level national strategy committees do get it wrong. The Brabazon Committee, for example, correctly predicted the emergence of civil air transport in the post-war world — but the ways in which the UK approached this (with the exception of the Comet jetliner) saw investments in giant turboprop and flying boat airliners that diverted effort and sent Britain down a dead-end from which, it might be argued, it never fully recovered. Third is that this renaissance is mostly civil aerospace-orientated. In defence, a different set of factors come into play. There is an impulse and desire for the MoD to ‘buy British’ to support UK industry, promote exports and getting the highest quality equipment. However, the parlous state of UK finances and previous defence procurement disasters have heightened the desire for cheaper, quicker, equipment brought off-the-shelf. Reconciling these two polar opposites will be challenging. Yet the underlying theme of the conference was extremely positive. Having convinced the politicians and decision-makers that it can lead a resurgence of British engineering and technology — it is now up to UK aerospace industry to deliver.


'Future Filton' opened by Airbus

Indeed, there are already signs that industry is responding and the renaissance is well underway. This week (5 December) saw the opening of a brand-new engineering facility at Airbus Filton in Bristol. The new engineering centre, Barnwell House co-locates some 2,000+ engineers in one state-of-the-art facility that features open-plan offices, break-out spaces, meeting zones and is more reminiscent of a Silicion Valley start-up or trendy TV news hub than a old-fashioned aeronautical design office. Co-locating the engineers makes for improved efficiency but also provides a truly inspiring  place to work - especially since the development also includes Pegasus House, the 1930's HQ of the Bristol Aeroplane Company - now fully restored to art-deco glory and housing Airbus Filton support staff. Though the redevelopment of Filton started before the announcement of the ATI and the decision by the UK Government to implement the AGP's findings - the fortuitous timing is yet another example of the UK 's aerospace Renaissance coming together. Said Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier at the launch "UK engineers are truly admired". He also noted admiringly of the strong British Government backing behind the aerospace sector: "What I have seen with the AGP & ATI has truly drawn the eyes of Airbus".  With Airbus wings, landing gear and fuel systems engineers all now in one place - 'Future Filton' may just lay claim to be the new beating heart of the UK aerospace Renaissance.

Tim Robinson
6 December 2013