Innovation is key for future of civil aerospace sector

The Engineer

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.