Britain: leading the world in aerospace innovation?


Everyone is aware of the UK’s aerospace history, which is marked by a number of world firsts; the first jet engine; first commercial jet airliner, the Comet; first supersonic airliner, Concorde (in conjunction with France, of course); and the Harrier, the world’s first wing VSTOL aircraft. In more recent times, apart from the Typhoon/Eurofighter, Rolls Royce engines and Airbus wings, the industry has largely fallen out of the spotlight.

This is unfortunate, because the sector is actually thriving, sustained to a substantial degree by innovative companies working quietly away in the shadows, yet generating much needed export income for the country. What is likely to come as a surprise to many is that the UK’s aerospace industry is actually the second largest in the world and is comprised of some of the most technologically advanced companies on the planet.

In terms of commercial aircraft, British companies are heavily involved in manufacturing engines, wings and other key components for Airbus, while 25% of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is manufactured here in the UK. Over the next decade or so it has been estimated that UK companies can expect to receive orders worth some £474bn for contracts to supply engines and components for commercial aircraft and helicopters.

On the military front, the Typhoon is set to form the backbone of the industry; UK companies manufacture a huge percentage of this aircraft. As with Airbus commercial airliners, UK companies also manufacture the wings and other components for the A400 military transport plane, while AgustaWestland designs and builds military helicopters.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are sure to play an ever more important role in the future, and the UK is already playing a major role in their development, along with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and the command and control equipment required to operate them. The UK is also taking a lead in the development of systems designed to enable UAVs to operate in commercial airspace. This complex technology will allow these aircraft to sense and avoid other planes or severe weather systems and take any necessary evasive action.

Though the country may appear to have been left behind in the field of space exploration, this is not at all the case. Britain plays a leading role in the manufacture and assembly of low Earth orbit communications satellites and is also involved in developing the service module for NASA’s Orion project, which is ultimately intended to send manned missions to Mars.

Some of the fields in which UK companies are at their most innovative and competitive are the development of lightweight composite materials, the development and casting of advanced materials for engine fan blades and components for the ESA’s latest Ariane 5 launch vehicle. One of the companies deeply involved in the aerospace industry and the design and manufacture of components for the Ariane project is Meggitt, which recently issued a press statement headlined ‘Sir Nigel Rudd to join Meggitt board.’ Sir Nigel has many years’ experience as a non-executive director of BAE Systems and is also chairman of BBA Aviation and Heathrow, making him the ideal choice to take over from the company’s retiring chairman, Sir Colin Terry.

One project that has the potential to become one of the most spectacular developments in recent UK aerospace history is Skylon, a spaceplane designed to take off and land on a runway. Using a highly advanced and innovative air-breathing/rocket propulsion system, Skylon is projected to carry up to 15 tonnes of cargo or passengers into orbit.

With over 230,000 workers employed either directly or indirectly and with highly skilled graduates joining every year from world-class universities such as Cambridge and Cranfield, there is every reason to believe that the country will remain a major player in the global aerospace industry for many years to come.

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