Assessing the Path Ahead
By Dan Dumbacher|October 2021
To move forward after a turbulent year, AIAA asked our members and the aerospace community at large to gauge the overall sentiment and outlook on the industry, as well as to identify challenges and opportunities for us all. We believe it’s an appropriate time to pause and reflect on the past 18 months or so, following the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our industry. We conducted a survey earlier this year to gain the perspectives of those who are driving the profession forward. The recently released “2021 AIAA State of the Industry Report: The Health and Future Outlook of the Aerospace Industry” covers the overall industry outlook, promising and challenged industry sectors, the impact of COVID-19, where policymakers should focus, and how employers are demonstrating a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).
The report affirms the AIAA Key Issues and provides new insights that will help us address our community’s immediate needs and priorities. We are pleased to provide the report exclusively to AIAA members for download at aiaa.org/stateofindustry as a valuable membership benefit. We’ve also made the Executive Summary free for everyone to access as an industry resource.
The report forecasts a number of exciting technology developments that will be transformational to the industry. While all new technologies come with challenges, four have opportunities that far outweigh these challenges: advanced or additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning, space exploration, and autonomous aircraft. We will use the findings in the report to help us make progress at the pace required to accelerate innovation in our three domains—Aeronautics, Aerospace R&D, and Space. The AIAA Domain approach is helping us lead the aerospace industry in addressing the future challenges across the traditional elements of the industry and embracing these new technology sectors.
Supersonic and hypersonic flight are viewed with a mixture of optimism and pessimism. On the one hand, professionals see it in the context of advancements and building on a strong knowledge foundation, where both the past experience of the Concorde and new learning from hypersonic weapons development can come into play. Challenges in this area center on perceived technological hurdles and inadequate funding and market support, at least as this time. There are concerns that the technology will not be able to meet economic and ecologic constraints, as well as be vulnerable to cyberattack.
Addressing sustainability and reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 was viewed in the report as extremely or very important to the health and well-being of the aerospace industry by all audience segments. Nearly 50% of respondents agreed that policies are needed to drive innovation and technology development supporting the pursuit of sustainability in aeronautics.
Aerospace R&D Domain
Advanced manufacturing is seen as transformational to current production practices for the aerospace industry and beyond. This view aligns with AIAA’s focus on R&D investment, with an emphasis on advanced manufacturing and AI/machine learning to stay on the cutting edge. Excitement about advanced manufacturing is not only driven by the possibilities of new products or faster production cycles – respondents are enthusiastic because of what advanced manufacturing can mean for space exploration and the ability to expand the space economy.
AI/machine learning touches all aspects of society, as well as all aspects of aerospace, and supports the realization of other emerging technologies and applications, including autonomous vehicles. Artificial intelligence expands the human capacity to achieve.
The report states that the space sector needs strong support for developing the technologies and operations for humanity’s return to the moon for the long term, and continuing exploration of the solar system and beyond. Advanced manufacturing will be foundational. Space exploration and the development of the space economy also ties into the excitement for autonomous aircraft. AIAA believes autonomy will drive new missions and capabilities otherwise unimaginable, as well as improve performance and lower cost and/or risk for aerospace systems and their missions.
The report includes other top-line findings:
• Public policy priorities for aerospace are clear – maintain stable funding, invest in research, develop technology infrastructure, and develop an educated workforce pipeline.
• Professionals would recommend a career in aerospace to a young person today.
• COVID-19 impacts will continue as the aviation sector recovers.
• Cybersecurity tops the list of challenges facing aerospace and defense.
• Employees expect a demonstrated commitment to DEI from their employers – which they feel is not always being met.
In addition, we partnered with Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and Ernst & Young LLP to conduct a 2021 Workforce Study released in September, which examines five key focus areas: employee and talent outlook, DEI improvement, the future of work, the A&D industry employee value proposition, and workforce trends.
We are energized by the availability of this timely industry data to help fulfill AIAA’s commitment to our members and the industry – to solve problems, develop new ideas, and apply technology in creative ways to shape the future of aerospace.★
Download “2021 AIAA State of the Industry Report: The Health and Future Outlook of the Aerospace Industry” Executive Summary and Report at aiaa.org/stateofindustry