It is common at the moment to hear that the aerospace industry is undergoing 'a period of major change.' To which it is tempting to reply — 'so what's new?'
If there is one thing that characterises the history of the three pillars of aerospace — civil and military aviation and spaceflight — it is constant evolution to adapt to the changing demands of society.
What is undeniably true is that the current set of demands on the sector are unique. In civil aerospace, the pressure is on to develop a new generation of technologies to satisfy our desire for air travel without costing the earth, in all senses of that phrase.
As we reporthere
, the imperative to design future aircraft with drastically lower levels of harmful emissions is encouraging the industry to explore new models of collaboration that operate across corporate and national boundaries.
This is surely a good thing, and the benefits from these initiatives go far beyond the environmental. The other big pressure on the global aviation sector is the price of fuel, because as we have been repeatedly reminded over the last few months, the era of cheap energy is over.
The price of oil is pushing the cost of air travel sharply upwards after a decade-long period of falling fares that was underpinned by intense competition between airlines and fuel costs that now seem to belong to a long-lost golden age.
Environmental benevolence and reduced cost both point in the same direction — fuel-efficiency and alternative ways of powering aircraft. This is prompting engineers in the sector to explore radical ideas in search of a future that is sustainable, both environmentally and economically. Could the propeller make a dramatic comeback to the aviation mainstream? Don't bet against it.
The encouraging thing for the UK is the deep involvement of its engineers in these initiatives thanks to our enduring strengths in the aerospace technology sector.
In the commercial sector, the fuel-efficient aircraft. In the military arena, the UAV. In space technology, the next generation of satellites.
In these and many other areas of innovation the UK's world-class aerospace sector is playing a leading role, providing a welcome rejoinder to those who claim there is nothing much we do very well as a nation.
Maintaining and growing the UK's aerospace strengths is a national economic priority and, as Mark Lowenberg of Bristol University points out inViewpoint
, the academic sector will play a key role in this.
Lowenberg rightly highlights the fact that UK aerospace, whether corporate or academic, is now competing on a world stage.
As so often, success or failure will come down to maintaining a steady flow of high-quality, skilled people into the industry.
This is an issue that all parties — companies, universities, government and engineering bodies — should give their fullest attention.
Andrew Lee, editor