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Innovation is key for future of civil aerospace sector

Two months ago, with the plume of ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano showing no sign of abating – the civil aerospace sector faced a crisis of unpredictable and potentially shattering proportions. With much of Europe’s airspace shut down and some suggesting that the eruption could continue for years, the potential consequences for the sector were unthinkably bleak.

Little wonder that there is now a palpable note of relief to the industry’s pre-Farnborough posturings.

But while – for now at least – the ’ash-cloud’ threat has passed, the crisis drew critical attention to the fundamentally conservative nature of the sector, with some claiming that the closure of air space was a knee-jerk response from an overly risk-obsessed industry.

As The Engineer argued at the time – the sector’s response was about right. With the effect of volcanic ash on aircraft barely understood, it made sense to be cautious. Indeed, as Airbus chief engineer Charles Champion says in our interview ’if you’re carrying passengers and you’re confronted with the minimum level of knowledge, you have to be conservative’.

Nevertheless, this conservative mindset creates a challenging climate for engineers. Civil aerospace faces arguably the greatest challenge in its history: ensuring that it achieves swingeing emissions reductions while continuing to grow. To address this without throwing caution to the winds is a tricky balancing act that pushes the ingenuity of aero-space engineers to the limit.

Fortunately, there’s no shortage of innovation in civil aviation: jet engine designers continue to achieve advances through the development of new technologies and exotic materials, while, as Champion points out, the Airbus A380 is an astonishing example of a fairly fundamental rethink on aircraft design.

Perhaps also there are lessons to be learned from the world of defence, which, is arguably free of some of the constraints faced by the civil sector.

For instance, with many of the safety issues that dogged early airship design now well and truly in the past – might the military airships featured in our Big Story Meet Lemv trigger a renaissance in the notion of airship as passenger aircraft? It’s certainly a greener way to travel and if the technology can shake off its association with the Hindenburg or the R101 disasters then it might just loom large in our aerospace future.


Readers' comments (3)

  • A delightful novel way to travel, but airships are too slow. Therefore too much space, and weight, would be required for recreational activity to prevent boredom. This would be self-defeating and make airship travel not cost effective and not greener.
    The Airbus 380 is simply a stretched 747 and is not novel.

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  • Inflated rather than stretched, we'd say.

  • Considering the recent Ch 4 documentary about the fate of Concorde.

    Others, possibly Virgin/Branson would have been happy to take it over and continue - but there was a "dog in the manger" somewhere that prevented further flights after ~2001. All because of one fatal accident, and measures had been taken to prevent that one recurring.

    So now, and foreseeably, the fastest any civilian or cargo can get anywhere in the world, whatever the emergency, is a bit less than the speed of sound, 550mph.

    Proposal:- it would have been better for the environment, and the future of personkind, had it continued and not these monstrous "super jumbos" which are trying to get more and more people to fly in less and less comfort and to the detriment of the upper atmosphere.

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  • A fundamental problem with airships is ground handling in gusty conditions. Other than that they seem to be a comfortable way of travelling. Speed is not always a priority. But no doubt the tourist industry could find them useful like cruise liners.

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