Britain’s innovation architect
By Cat Hofacker|November 2019
In some respects, the British view of society’s future in flight is similar to that here in Aerospace America’s home country of the United States. But spend a few minutes with Simon Weeks, and a stark contrast becomes apparent. Clean, quiet flight is in high public demand in the United Kingdom, and those who fall short make easy targets for critics. As chief technology officer of the Aerospace Technology Institute, or ATI, a government and industry joint venture that directs U.K. research spending, Weeks spends much of his time scouting for ideas worthy of receiving funds through a formal solicitation process. I interviewed Weeks at The Hub during AIAA’s Propulsion and Energy Forum in Indianapolis.
IN HIS WORDS
Working with U.K. industry, we’ve put together a national technology strategy for the U.K., a bit like NASA’s got a technology strategy for aerospace. We do talk internationally to people, so we know NASA quite well and work with them to gather their thoughts on where the world of aerospace should be going. We are working on a budget at the moment of about £4 billion ($4.8 billion) for over a number of years. So we’re investing about £300 million a year jointly of government and industry money, and the big priorities are the future generations of propulsion, investing in the latest technologies for composite wind technology, and a huge focus on electrification. We check that proposed projects fit with that strategy. Did we think that the program that’s been proposed is ambitious enough, it’s challenging enough and it’s bringing through novel, new technologies, and then down the line will actually deliver some economic benefit in the U.K., which is one of the reasons our government have put a large amount of money in — the economic importance of aerospace industry in the country.
Jet engine technology
Certainly, our biggest area of work is future propulsion. Propulsion is a big part of our program in the U.K., with much of it led by Rolls-Royce. The focus is on developing technologies for large ultra-high bypass ratio engines. It’s the biggest engine architecture change for large engines that Rolls-Royce has done in many decades. It’s totally new architecture, huge amount of new technology, very challenging technology. So there’s a huge amount of exciting stuff there.
The U.K. is putting together some unique collaborations with people who don’t necessarily naturally come together. We pulled together about 13 different groups on the program to bring through radical new ways of developing safety-critical software. You have all these people suddenly realizing, not surprisingly, there are other companies out there working on software, and they developed a very openly collaborative way of working and brought through certain phenomenal improvements on how quickly you can develop software. That’s hugely important because the cost of software development for aerospace is rocketing. We’re building more and more complexity, and so the cost is going up and up with each generation of products we develop. In fact, some of the work that we did with Rolls-Royce awhile back showed that within the back 20 years, the biggest cost element of developing an engine is the control system software, which is a bit scary, isn’t it?
Bringing back supersonic flight
I think the environmental impact would be a key issue. Supersonic aircraft will use several times as much energy. Going fast takes energy, and if you were to go hypersonic, you’re sitting on top of a huge flying fuel tank. So will there be a commercial market and passengers for supersonic? I think maybe for the very rich — few can afford it because it’s going to always be expensive — but I don’t see a mass market for it. If we’re all trying to fly supersonically, that will not be great for the environment either. So I think the market will be there, but it’ll be small, probably for very high-end small-business jets. Of course, as an aerospace enthusiast, it’s very exciting, but we do need to think about the environment. What we see over in Europe is a real upswell of public opinion on the environment, and aerospace is an easy target. You can see lots of aircraft flying around, and so I think it’s going to be a powerful factor in what sort of stuff we could do in the future. Already in some countries, if you look in Sweden where this young woman Greta Thunberg is already leading this environmental challenge, the demand for civil flights has dropped by something like 15% since the campaigning started a few months back. It’s having real impact; people are making decisions on whether they fly.
Today, the way in which we manage air traffic leads to aircraft staying in the air for much longer than they need to get from A to B, burning more fuel and generating more emissions. There’s almost 10% emissions improvement to come if we could fly every aircraft on the most fuel-efficient course, without waiting on hold in the air for a landing slot. That’s possible; the technology is there to do that now. Funny enough, it’s more the speed of the politics around aviation that hold up progress. If you look at the European environment, there are many, many separate air control authorities, and they will need to decide to adopt effectively the same system. And actually, you don’t need as many air traffic control centers as there currently are. I think it’s where the U.S. could move a lot faster because it’s a single air transport authority across the whole country, and it’s a very big country. So I think there’s an opportunity there for the U.S. to come lead the way.
Noise is a hugely emotive issue; it’s quite interesting. If you asked the public, their concerns are, “There’s more aircraft; they’re getting bigger and getting noisier.” It’s a kind of human perception issue, and that perception kind of ratchets up over time so people’s expectation changes. This is a huge challenge for urban aviation, air taxis. They’ve got to have almost negligible noise impact on their surroundings, otherwise there will be a public perceptibility issue. I was at the Paris Air Show, and Pipistrel [in Slovenia] is a company making small battery-powered trainer aircraft, which is proving quite popular, and you could hardly hear that fly. Normally with a little [general aviation aircraft], you hear the engine. So I think electric vehicles will stay quiet, but they won’t be noiseless. If you move air, you’re going to make some noise.
Achilles heel for electric flight
The problem with batteries is you can’t store very much energy compared with kerosene. I’ve been using gas turbine power in combination with electrical power, so using the gas turbine to generate electrical power and using that electrical power to drive electric propulsors may give you a lot more flexibility to make more aerodynamically efficient aircraft. I think one of the real challenges with the battery-powered aircraft would be how much endurance you get. At the moment, once you take battery deterioration and emergency reserves into account, for an eVTOL air vehicle, you might only be able to do short flights before recharging — can you make a commercial business from that?
I think that electrification is all-around power density, and it’s the power density of how you would store or generate that power. Batteries will be actually key to smaller aircraft, and the power density needs to at least double from where we are today. The batteries, electrical machinery, motors, generators need to hit much lighter, more power dense than they are today. And all of the electronic units you need to manage that power need to have smaller power than that’s there today. So, power density is a key issue and the systems integration around what could be actually quite complex for integrating those electrical propulsion systems, possibly with autonomous flight systems, particularly for small air taxis. I think there will be a market there, and one of the things that’s driving it is increasing congestion around our societies. I think the cost of just traffic jams in the U.K. is at least £9 billion a year, so well over $10 billion a year, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Commute times are going up and up and up. So does the air offer you a realistic way to block some of that? Actually, if you can allow autonomous flights or, say, electrified aircraft in the airspace, you could deliver a whole range of other different services: survey machines, transport of parcels. The construction industry is starting to look at using drones for the construction of buildings. There’s a whole world that starts to get unlocked. Electrification is part of it, and autonomy. The ability to allow huge numbers of small air vehicles to operate in the same airspace could well transform the ability to get things from A to B and offer services in the air. So I think it’s a really exciting potential future.
Braced for Brexit
The aerospace companies that I’m aware of in the U.K. have been very proactive, putting a lot of measures into place to ensure that the supply chains and logistics keep flowing. I think that’s the biggest concern because I think there were various already agreements in place that limit customs duty and all those sorts of things, charges for going across borders. The key thing is: Will Brexit make the whole process of getting from A to B across Europe, or between mainland Europe and the U.K., much more difficult? As far as I’m aware, most countries have done something to try alleviate that. I think there’ll be a few bumps in the road, but I’m pretty confident the industry will rally rank and find a way to get around it. Interestingly, Theresa May, before she finished as prime minister, committed the U.K. to zero emitted carbon by 2050, which I think is the first government internationally to do that. That’s a hugely ambitious target, so we were trying to figure out: Could we actually do that? If so, how do you do that? It’s not just the air vehicles; it’s the transport system; it’s the fuel that we use as well. How do we get more low carbon impact fuel into aircraft? And again, the solution there is partially political. These politicians need to do something to start the market to make alternative fuels affordable with respect to fossil fuels. There’s a lot that can be done to do that, but I think that push to low emissions will continue in respect to the Brexit.