Grand designs on the future

Professor Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University, outlines the UK’s need to focus on high-value engineering design for aviation, the opportunities ahead, and how it can happen.

Once the world-leader in the development of aviation technologies, the UK is now more likely to be designing new wing and engine components than whole aircraft.

It matters because if British industry isn’t involved in shaping the future – and not just the next generation of aircraft, but entire future systems of air travel – then it won’t be part of the fast-moving currents of momentum, only trailing in their wake.

Catching up will soon be much harder than ever before, because we’re on the brink of a new revolutionary phase in air technologies in the form of digital aviation and the use of autonomous systems: integrated, Artificial Intelligence-driven travel.

If we’re not to be a bit part player on this new business and technological stage then there needs to be a shift in attitudes to the role of design. Government policy and industry focus has been on the importance of high-value manufacturing to the positioning of UK businesses in the global market. Which, on one level, has been the common-sense approach. But on another it’s been a narrowing of attention away from original strengths and principles. We need to be global leaders in high-value design if we’re to maintain a long-term role in high-value manufacturing. There is also the prospect of eventually losing our involvement with the largest overseas aerospace industry businesses, as the reputation of British engineering begins to fade, too much dependent on the excellence of its specialist, small-scale manufacturing, with no ambition in terms of the bigger picture.

There are going to be major benefits from the arrival of what’s being described as the ‘third revolution’, fifty years on from the major economic and social changes resulting from when technologies like pressurised cabins and gas turbine engines made mass air travel the norm. Digital aviation is predicted (in a World Economic Forum report 2017) to lead to a $700 billion saving by 2025 in terms of reduced environmental impacts, higher levels of security and safety and cost savings for customers. The increased profitability of this more efficiently organised autonomous model for the aviation and travel industry as a whole is expected to generate an added $305 billion.

It’s easy to paint a picture. But in reality, none of these benefits for industry and passengers are guaranteed at this stage. Individual trends of autonomous technologies exist, but haven’t been fully tested. We don’t yet know how systems will work together, or where the problems will come from when they’re being used in a messy real-world context, how these types of complex holistic systems involved will cope with the unexpected. We don’t know what kinds of alternative and compromise models will be needed to balance the human and the autonomous. Such a data-driven operation is dependent on impeccable information security, as well as widespread international co-operation in the integration of technologies and air travel policies. Environmental benefits will mostly come from the development and mass adoption of electric aircraft.

So, we’re back to the importance of high-value design, in everything from the development of third revolution-ready aircraft to autonomous maintenance vehicles, passenger sensors and the data analysis that turns all the noise of complexity into a harmonious operation.

At Cranfield we’re setting ourselves up to be a holistic lab for design, testing and manufacture, acting as the UK’s research airport. Alongside facilities like the on-campus airport and smart road for testing autonomous vehicles, there is the Aerospace Integration Research Centre (AIRC) and Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC), which all together provides the kind of environment needed to test and demonstrate what’s possible in the new world of aviation. Industry funders for the centres include Boeing, Thales, Raytheon, SAAB, Monarch Aircraft Engineering and Aveillant.

Given its heritage in aerospace, UK industry should be, and needs to be, much more than a niche partner. That means taking ownership of the third revolution, creating its own models and most of all, starting with big plans for design.

Mike Richardson :