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Innovation in Aerospace – Tejasvi Anil Menon

Article by Tejasvi Anil Menon

The word Aerospace carries a fascination in every knowledgeable mind and could be one of the reasons that this article caught your eye. Humans have always found it unfathomable to understand and analyze the wonders that aviation and space technology offer. Beginning from the ability to defy gravity, maintaining balance in thin air, and reaching the right destination; the true magic of science delivered in a streamlined fashion. The very terminology arises from the amalgamation of aeronautics and spaceflight describing the stand of the industry. The Wright brothers marked the beginning of dramatic change in the industry that has now led to innumerable investments in the world market. It is their innovation of pilot operated warping that has been a breakthrough and led to the revolution in aircraft and spacecraft industries. With the first business transaction being recorded in 1906, the industry has boomed with peeking demands all over the world and it has become an inevitable part of the military arsenal of all nations. The industry deals with research and development, manufacturing, Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) mainly and also with a wide range of weight categories.

A Peep into the Past

Looking back, it is evident that the industry owes its wide popularity and explosion in merchandising to the years of bloody World-wars that arose a sense of necessity towards expansion in the industry across the globe. With countries loading their warehouses with aeronautics combined in the civil and military market to display their might, finances flew in, promising a bright future. But, the Post-Armistice Period depicted a staggering market with orders plummeting due to the option of peace talks on the table. Yet, the civil market continued to grow as the fashion of air travel gained momentum across the globe unequivocally. With the new world order coming into play, travel and expansion in the industry became symbols of a growing economy. The significance of satellites was inconspicuous in the coming times. Any nation that wanted to be a power-player soon realized the relevance of space technology and the might of satellites. Erstwhile-USSR and the United States during the Cold War era, being well aware of the magnitude of the technology, began to work on rapid advancements by building space stations, space programs, and large research labs. Investments flew in, thus marking the beginning of a space-age with nations competing against each other, launching innovative missions, exploring different aspects of earth and beyond.

Aircraft and spacecraft have always been experimental paraphernalia with constant improvement. As mentioned earlier, the Post- Armistice period created instability in the industry only to pave way for a powerful comeback with an efficient and well-concentrated engine industry by Wright Aeronautical Company and Curtiss Aeroplane and Motors. The time also saw a shift of hobbyists into entrepreneurs, understanding the gravity that the industry held for the future. Universities began to offer degrees of engineering in Aerospace and innovators came together to create a patent pool that welcomed new ideas and supported intellectual property rights.
The early-twentieth-century saw a drastic shift towards modernity in the industries with the aid of innovations. Taking over of monoplanes by biplanes, stressed skin cantilevered wings substituted by externally braced wings, use of variable pitch propellers, sleek aerodynamic shape, and replacement of wood by metal resulting in new types of components- all led to a new phase for the industry. The United States emerged as the largest air-mailer in the later phase of the century, building a large number of aircrafts and military fighter jets. This made them firm believers in the power of aviation, and bringing in larger investments and segregation of the industry into subcontracts making it the largest employer industry. Constant addition of innovation ensured a boom in sales for the US market.

Spacepower and Cold War

The Cold War era projected a different picture that caused a deviation in the growth for the US markets with a competitor on the other side. This helped in the boost of adding innovations to outshine the other. It is interesting to note that the Berlin-airlift marked the beginning of the era enhancing the significance of the industry. Lockheed in an attempt to supersede the U-2 spy plane manufactured the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest jet-propelled aircraft to With being called ‘winning weapons’, the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) missions marked the restructuring of the industry. Turbojets also added to the gain in momentum. Third world nations began to depend on the super-powers for Transfer of Technology (ToT) and investing in manufacturing units in the countries. In an effort to attain the status of a developing country, most countries like India considered achievements in the arena exigent. Setting up of research labs, launch pads, and scientific units were given the utmost importance. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have proven themselves from time to time with the success of Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and the Pokhran Nuclear Tests respectively. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was a watershed in the development of space technology with them completing the mission of sending humans to the moon and bringing them back safely to earth on the Apollo 11 mission.

Keeping up the spirit of competition, the USSR was not behind their missions with Sputnik-1 being the first Earth artificial satellite.

The Space Age

The twenty-first century had something different to offer to the industry. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the end of the cold war and a reduction in the necessity of military investments. Yet, civil aviation saw an unprecedented gravitas in business demanding innovations in the industry worldwide. Cheaper air-tickets are the demand of the time with air-travel symbolizing an easy mode of travel. With the century witnessing rapid advancements and innovations, and major investments in infrastructure by countries across the globe, space
technology is considered to be the future. Private bodies like Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Elon Musk and his mission of colonizing Mars are enthusiastically innovating the idea that space represents to the individual mind. The Tesla Roadster on its drive to space was once beyond human imagination and has now been transformed into reality. The company has been the first private body to fund liquid-propellant rockets to reach orbit. They have also been the first to send humans to orbit as a private company.

The way forward

The process of innovation has geared up in the industry with the coming of new technologies and researches. Zero fuel aircraft is one of the major emerging technologies with its use in multiple industries such as agriculture, 3D mapping and several others. They are said to use photovoltaic panels to utilize solar energy that will in turn provide the thrust for the engines.

Scientists at NASA along with the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are working on a plasma-based rocket propulsion system- Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) that would help in reducing fuel consumption and simultaneously ensure long-term space missions in the future.

Material sciences and its advancement have always been a great advantage to the industry by helping in cost-cutting by the reduction in weight and use of sustainable parts. Graphene and Carbon nanotubes are the new materials in use that support lesser fuel requirements and weight, adding efficiency to the wings. ‘Morphing’ wings developed by NASA and MIT have led to better manufacturing processes.

The progress made by 3D printing is a sigh of relief for the manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing that work with large scale production, helping them successfully meet their deadlines.

The replacement requirements that arise on a regular basis are dealt with efficiently using the technique. The next phase of innovation is said to take place with the creation of aircraft parts helping in the reduction of cost, time, and weight.

The new ‘SPIDER’ (a self-propelled instrument for damage evaluation and repair) introduced by Lockheed Martin Skunk Works helps in reducing the time and energy spent in the laborious task of ‘pinhole checks’. The autonomous robot detects and patches holes with an onboard repair kit. The industry is a test bed and in the footsteps of progress, several new innovations are under planning. Rolls-Royce have been trying to achieve a major cut down in the emission of greenhouse gases by the propellant. The ASTREA project flew the plane from the ground with safety pilots on board, in a mission to achieve the idea of flying unmanned-air vehicles.

Innovation in flight operations such as in Air Traffic Control(ATC) can not only ensure timely travel and save costs but at the same time can show an improvement of up to 20% increase in the safety risk index. Alterations in software used in ground, air, and space can ensure accuracy and safety supporting the tremendous change in technology happening every day, thereby offering better cybersecurity, and preventing any mishap due to extremist activities such as hacking.

Culmination

The constant and steady growth of the industry with an inflow of innovations and ideations is a requisite. Scientists across the globe recognizing the opportunities available and nations and private bodies acknowledging the relevance of the industry makes it easier for the influx of finance and technology. Innovation in all aspects of the aerospace industry is unavoidable as one part of the sector should not become dead weight pulling down the progress made so far. A hand in hand growth is necessary right from manufacturing, research, and development, Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul(MRO). Considering both civil and military aspects widely dependent on the advancement of the industry, large investments must be drawn into research and development. In such a situation, disappointment is unacceptable. Joint ventures and outsourcing must go hand in hand to enrich the emerging market that promises a bright future for the industry with the coming along of abled private bodies. With plans of colonizing Mars and active research on the other entities of the galaxy in action, let us not restrict the possibilities that space encapsulates for generations to come.

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