The Future of UK Aerospace

The Future of UK Aerospace


 By Dan Swinhoe

Concepts for future aeroplane

When you think of an aeroplane, chances are you see a Boeing-747 in your head. The classic 'tube with wings' design made flight cheaper and more accessible to the public and created what is now a multi-billion worldwide industry.

The UK, while not building every plane from scratch, is still a huge player in the world of aviation, both in production and R&D. The likes of Boeing, Rolls Royce and BAE mean the UK is second only the US in terms of market share. The industry employs 100,000 people and generated nearly £30bn last year.

However, while things might look rosy, there's nothing to guarantee they'll stay this way.

"Research and development investment is at a historic low and core capabilities, key facilities and infrastructure are all slowly eroding. If the UK does not create an economic vision for the future, we may well see one of our most important industries fall into decline – like so many other sectors of British manufacturing over the past two decades."

The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IME) last month published Aero 2075: Flying into a Bright Future? Released as part of its 'Engineered In Britain' campaign, the report looks at the Aerospace industry in the UK, and how it can retain its importance in the future. Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers spoke to Ask The Experts about the report and where the UK fits into the future.

In the first part of the report, The importance of the UK aerospace sector to UK manufacturing, it expresses concern at the lack of support from the Government.

"Since the financial crash in 2008, and the follow-on recession, investment in R&D within the UK aerospace sector has flat lined," Phillipa said. "This leaves the UK in a vulnerable position against the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries.  It is estimated that over the next 20 years it is predicted that there will be over 25,000 new aircraft with a market value in excess of $3 trillion.  The UK must invest in both its infrastructure and skills to ensure that we can access some of this."

 That's a huge amount of money, and with the current economic climate, many will question the idea that such a profitable sector needs giving money. "UK industry and Government needs to take steps now to secure the future of the UK aerospace sector." She explains the need for a long term plan for the future, and to create a national research centre.

Last year nearly £2bn was spent on R&D in the industry, with almost half being self-financed. The government contributes around 25% of this figure and is looking to reduce the amount, feeling that the sector is self sufficient. But IME feel the government needs to carry on funding, and also lead the way for Advanced Technologies Research Institute.

"In other countries these research facilities tend to be government owned and form part of the national research establishment.  There are already many private companies and universities working on research within this sector. Without the state creating such a facility it would be left to these organisations already in existence to create it.  This would need to a number of questions like: Who would choose where this facility was located? Who would own this facility? Who would own the IP created by this facility?"

"The Institution is asking for Government to create a UK Advanced Technologies Aerospace Research Institution so that these questions would be answered. Such a facility would bring these organisations together so that they could work in a collaborative focussed approach. The general running of the facility could be done by a board which would be made up of the key employees from a selection of the aerospace players from industry and universities." While the UK is involved in some large long-term research projects, it may not be enough. "The Institution is concerned about the future of the UK aerospace sector,  where these products add benefit to the global aerospace sector they may not add as much value or investment back into the UK."

IME cite France's ONERA and Germany's DLR as examples of what the UK needs to keep ahead of the rest of the world. Up and coming nations overtaking the UK are a real threat, not just in the aviation industry. Phillipa said, "India is classed as one of the BRIC countries,  countries that are investing a lot of money into research and development. They are also the growing global manufacturing regions."

The report explains how Airbus have 'established an Indian design and research centre and plans to employ over 500 engineers by 2012' while Boeing have spent over $1bn and 'established Boeing International Corporation India to support the growing demands of India’s aviation, aerospace and defence industries.' "These companies see the attractiveness of the aerospace sector and are drawn towards the market," she warns, "The Indian state is investing heavily in this sector and offering valuable tax incentives they could indeed be a future competitor of the UK."

Sea Harriers in flight

The second half of the report-The future of flight 2075 and beyond, focuses less on the UK, and more on where the future of Civilian Aviation is heading. One of the opening statements of the report quips, "While the promotional videos promising observation decks and virtual golf-ranges prompt media interest, few ideas make it from the drawing board to research, and fewer still into production reality."

Instead of golf ranges and media interest, the report looks at a range of concept planes coming from two separate research projects. The New Aircraft Concepts Research (NACRE) project aims to 'develop generic solutions at a component level (cabin, wing, propulsion system, fuselage), rather than focusing on one specific type of aircraft' and features 35 partners from all over the EU and Russia, including universities, research organisations and airline manufacturers.

N+3, started by NASA in 2008, focuses on aircraft three generations beyond today’s commercial fleet and wants concepts that simultaneously meet reductions exceeding 70% in fuel burn, 75% in emissions, and 71dB in noise compared to today’s aircraft, as well looking ahead to the spiritual successor to Concorde in supersonic flight.

"These programmes are all good research platforms for aircraft development.  Programmes such as theses give companies across the world the chance to work together on how they can use their technologies in collaboration to improve the function of the aircraft." Phillipa explains the findings from these projects have a large amount of potential and can shape how they will look.

Aside from Concorde, the 'tube with wings' design has remained essentially unchallenged for over thirty years. But its time is coming to an end. The design's life-cycle has hit the wall and there's little that can be changed. But how the planes of the future were look are still all in the very early concept stages, and when they will be rolled out and the old designs fazed out is even harder to say. "This all depends on the direction and vision of the aircraft manufacturers."


"It is estimated that the cost of failure of a new product could bankrupt a company however, as the airlines and legislators drive ever more efficient and greener aeroplanes this could lead to the focus on the aircraft body design changing.  The Institution believes that aircraft manufactures will only take the step change to blended wings when there is the real demand for such a step change, this could be within the next twenty years."

Quite how the future of passenger flight will change is yet to be seen. Today the two options are 'more people flown further'  approach, as used by Airbus, and then there's 'more flights to more places option' used by Boeing's Dreamliner. Further in the future however, R&D is wondering what sort of speeds we'll be travelling at.

The report splits future aircraft into three areas; subsonic (slower than the speed of sound), supersonic (faster than the speed of sound) and hypersonic (more than five times the speed of sound – Mach 5). Phillipa says, "If the current trend of increasing fuel prices and passengers wanting greener, quieter aircraft continues then the move will be in the area of subsonic, so travelling at similar speeds to those with which we are flying now. However, if passengers become more concerned with getting to their destinations in a shortest amount of time possible then hypersonic travel may become the method of choice."

Fuel saving is one of the highest priorities of any concept planes, and according to the report generating energy on-board the ships is a 'key future technology.'

"Solar power is a technology that has developed and improved significantly over the last decade. QinetiQ have previously demonstrated that an unmanned vehicle powered by solar has the capability of staying airborne for over 14 days," Philippa says. "There has also been significant developments in battery chemistry and so there is a possibility that in the future we may see solar power being used to power batteries to provide the energy for flight." Those who follow solar power closely will be looking towards Solar Impulse, a project which plans to fly around the word in 2014, using only solar power. The report explained the project is 'fronted by round-the-world hot air balloonist Bertrand Piccard' and in July 2011 ' had a successful test flight out of Switzerland, proving it can run both day and night on the power of the sun.'

Solar power, fuel efficiency, noise reduction, these are all practical  ideas that are being implemented in vehicles across the world. But the report does have some very futuristic ideas. The most surprising is the suggestion of a 'Mothership' or as the report calls it, "A sort of Ark Royal for the skies," where planes to fly to for air-to-air refuelling or drop passengers who then travel directly to their destination. "This is indeed a radical idea but we must not eliminate technologies because at first they do not appear feasible," Philippa explains. "This is a concept that needs to be investigated further in terms of whether it could become a reality.  If people had you had told people 100 years ago that we would be flying on vehicles carrying over 800 people a distance of over 9000 miles they would have thought that you were mad — this is now achievable through the Airbus A380."

Another out-there idea, though probably less appealing to nervous flyers, is the prospect of unmanned formation flying. "UAVs are now used freely within the military market.  The software that is used to fly the planes has to go through rigours tests and meet critical safety standards," Philippa says, confident that it will one day be used in the civil aviation market. And with automated flight, fuel-saving formation flying won't be far behind.

Those worried solar power, formation flying and motherships will make flying too expensive shouldn't fret too much. "Historical trends show that the cost of travel decreases over time through advances in technology," Phillipa says. "However, the cost of flying is associated with many inter-related and complex issues. It is difficult to predict how these advances will impact the cost as we do not know what the demand for travel will be in the future or what national and global policy changes will shape the sector."

Relevant Links
Instituion of Mechanical Engineers
B-52 Gets New Lease of Life