Peaceful partnerships - air vehicle technical review

Materials World magazine
3 Mar 2012

New initiatives and collaborations in manufacturing are fortifying the UK defence industry. Dan Jones, Dan Kells and Chris Peel from the Aerospace, Aviation and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network (AAD KTN) outline the main functions and benefits of the latest air vehicle technical review.

Recent challenges to the UK defence and manufacturing sectors have been widely publicised. Constraints to Government spending coupled with the Ministry of Defence’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) have had a significant effect on the acquisition of new assets, the grounding or disposal of old ones and the cancellation of development contracts. Despite these reductions the defence and aerospace industry remains a major export for the UK. The value of defence exports alone topped £7bln in 2009, taking nearly 20% of the global market and second only to the USA in value.

These difficulties have driven engineers to change their behaviour and attitude towards the way they work. Traditional relationships between engineers, researchers and funding bodies are being reconfigured so businesses can more effectively seek the capabilities required to satisfy the performance demands of their future products. This will mean government and industry can invest research and development capital with minimised risk. In turn this affects the research and development programmes themselves, but not necessarily always negatively. New opportunities have arisen in platform structures, powerplants, weapon systems and other areas where the importance of reliable, affordable and sustainable materials that will still deliver the required performance has been recognised.

For example, the Government’s Technology Strategy Board has recently announced investment of £140m over the coming six years for core capabilities being developed by the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – one of six centres of excellence that bridge the gap between business, academia, research and government. In addition, Catapult is expected to win funding from UK and EU competitions. The Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) core materials and structures programme has been relaunched as the Materials and Structures Science and Technology Centre (MAST STC) with an increased budget, and continues to support materials and structures research for defence throughout industry and academia.

Collaborating for results

It is vital that changes in the drivers and associated requirements for research and development are promulgated from government and the defence industry to potential suppliers and partners. The Materials and Structures National Technical Committee (MS NTC) has been working to provide a unified view from Government, industry and academia of the critical drivers needed to sustain existing capability. They are also cultivating future research and development programmes in materials and structures within five- and 20-year horizons. The output of these views has been a series of technical reviews with the first four focusing on:

  • military fixed wing aircraft
  • rotorcraft, military and civil
  • engines and powerplants
  • civil transport aircraft (fewer than 50 seats)

A previous iteration of the Military Aircraft Review, considering air combat vehicles, was published prior to the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. It has now been upgraded and extended as the Military Fixed Wing Aircraft Review. In order to gain a more holistic view of defence applications, the AAD KTN recommends that the other reviews covering rotorcraft, powerplants and civil aircraft are consulted in conjunction with the Military Fixed Wing Aircraft Review. Additionally, in March 2012 the MS NTC will publish a further review considering future vehicles and concepts encompassing emerging and disruptive technologies.

The existing reviews published by the MS NTC begin by identifying the external drivers that influence the state of the market so that the demands steering the increasing need for research and development are clearly understood. Key themes that are common throughout the reviews are:

  • best practices for the extension of usable life of platforms
  • need for flexibility in the updating and adaptation of capabilities
  • need for familiarisation with platforms and systems procured from other countries that may differ in terms of materials specification, handling, maintenance or repair by techniques.

For example, different materials continue to appear, exemplified by the recent uptake of new aluminium alloys and composites on a new combat aircraft platform.

Leading the way

Materials and structures technology in the UK needs to keep pace with the changing requirements expressed by Government and the defence industry. To demonstrate this, the continuing need to advance unmanned aircraft capability will place further unique demands on materials capability. Unmanned aircraft differ significantly in their structural and powerplant designs, and could potentially more aggressively exploit structures, materials and their manufacturing technologies. The newly published Fixed Wing Military Aircraft Review expands on these themes, providing a new, unified perception of the drivers and possibilities for research and development in materials and structures for defence applications, such as those outlined below.

Specifically, advances in modelling capabilities enabling multidisciplinary design to predict all design aspects of new structures, and to do so in an integrated manner, has been earmarked by the NTC as a priority area demanding focus. Particular attention needs to be applied, for example, to modelling high frequency loading typical of structures and rotorcraft. The quick and efficient insertion of new technologies, materials and designs onto both new and existing platforms must be cost effective. A requirement for such qualification would arise with the need to rapidly insert new materials that replace a critical shortfall in supply due to, for example, environmental legislation.

Further attention needs to be given to the modelling and development of aspects of service life and degradation of structures through vibration, fatigue, corrosion, high temperature exposure, impact, wear, repair and post repair life and disposal. As mentioned above, there is a particular need to focus on the extension of usable life in light of the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

New and improved materials also feature in this review where their insertion and use enhance the performance of military structures. Traditional emphasis placed on high specific strengths and stiffness will be supplemented by high temperature performance, survivability (including signature control, affordability and environmental impact), while the related aspects of affordable manufacture and affordable materials and structures are significant.

The strength of these reviews lies in the fact that they represent the combined and agreed views of senior UK industrial, Government and academic specialists as to the areas of materials and structures technologies that are critical to the fortification of the UK’s future market share, and that should attract investment. The AAD KTN works to publicise and articulate the views of industry to the wider network, both within the aerospace, aviation and defence sectors, and beyond. By attracting businesses and researchers with unique capabilities that can help the development of these critical technologies, research and development programmes can be accelerated, new partnerships can flourish and technologies can be effectively applied to new or novel areas. It is well established that partnerships effectively advance technology and, in turn, stimulate growth, but it is a continuous process that requires re-appraisal, refreshment, new partnerships and initiatives in order to thrive.

The reviews are designed to be refreshed readily. Further industrial contributions are encouraged to enhance future iterations, which become more accurate and complete as a result. The UK can succeed in fulfilling global customers’ and end users requirements. Through articulating the knowledge and understanding of what is required via these published reviews the Materials and Structures National Technical Committee is calling experts from as wide a pool as possible to collaborate, extrapolate these ideas and make them a reality.

Further information

Daniel Jones, Network and Communications Manager, Aerospace, Aviation and Defence Knowledge Transfer Network. Tel: +44 (0) 207 091 1123. Email: