The UK aerospace industry is a global leader, second only to the US in a widely viewed sector as the catalyst for technology innovations in many important engineering disciplines. The importance of the aerospace company in UK has been acknowledged by a government initiative, the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP) and over the years aerospace engineering innovations have impacted electronics, communications, material science, and energy systems, to name but a few. The industry has been recognised as a significant testbed for wider developments in automation, inspection and assembly as a by-product of aerospace innovations.
Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the industry. The grounding of flights throughout the world and the economic consequences of COVID has meant that a once-thriving sector has been brought near to collapse. The knock-on effect has been job losses in major players such as Rolls-Royce and GKN Aerospace and the many thousands of smaller component suppliers and other companies directly involved in the manufacturing supply chain.
Is this the end of innovation? Although the picture looks bleak, innovations in aerospace continue, fuelled by climate change and the global sustainability imperative which has accelerated the quest for more carbon-free means of production and flying.
New aerospace innovations in the pipeline
So what innovations in aerospace technology are being pursued? Although there has been little investment from the UK Government to help the industry develop the next-generation carbon-free aircraft and hold on to its position as an engineering leader, it has assisted in various other initiatives.
The world’s first electric-powered commercial flight completed recently was the result of a collaboration between Cranfield University and US-based ZeroAvia, a leading innovator in decarbonising commercial aviation, aided by a £2.7m grant from the UK Government.
This represents a considerable leap towards one of the most widely anticipated innovations for aerospace: zero carbon emission aviation made possible by such initiatives
as electric and hydrogen fuel sources. It also underlines the importance of collaboration
between the aviation manufacturing sector and UK academia.
Other aspects of the drive to reduce CO2 emissions are new aerospace innovations for aerospace from the field of material science, focusing on the manufacture of lighter materials for the production of aircraft, for example, graphene and carbon nanotubes and high-temperature resins, as well as composite materials embedding sensors which allow the material to change its behaviour during a flight. Their potential impact on weight and fuel consumption is huge.
New aerospace innovations have also ignited interest in urban air mobility. A decade ago urban air taxis would have been the stuff of sci-fi movies, but they need to reduce traffic from our congested roads, together with a growing realisation of what a world of regulated autonomous cars might look like, has spawned a growth in companies looking to take urban traffic above ground level. Urban air mobility (UAM) is gaining a lot of attention, with some players aiming to offer taxi services within the next few years.
Airbus, the multinational European aerospace company currently has two electric UAM vehicles under development, offering single passengers the possibility of taking to the skies. The company’s first autonomous electric take-off and landing (eVTOL) Vahana prototype has a range of approximately 30 miles (perfect for a shopping trip into town) and infrastructure is already being considered for such a scenario.
The nascent UK space technologies industry has also benefited from support from the government for an ambitious goal to reach a 10% share of the global market by 2030. Helping to spearhead aerospace innovations in this sector are companies such as Reaction Engines who have developed ‘SABRE’, an advanced type of engine designed to allow aircraft to fly to speeds of over five times the speed of sound, and Astroscale which is producing innovative solutions to space waste, using spacecraft to find and catch debris to be taken out of orbit. Five new projects were recently awarded a share of a £1 million government fund, including one to remotely examine the ice on Mars for signs of life.
Clearly, despite the havoc wrought by the pandemic, aerospace engineering inventions and innovations in aerospace have not ground to a halt. The industry is striving hard to address the challenges posed by the UK government’s net-zero carbon emissions target by 2050 at the same time as setting its sights on making a global impact on the future of aviation and space travel.
What recent aerospace innovations have you been interested in recently? Let us know your opinions about them in the comments section below.