Airbus interview: research, innovation and the future of aviation

IT plays a substantial role in creating the aircraft of the future, with research and innovation at the core of the Airbus business strategy

Research and innovation is at the core of the Airbus business strategy. From creating lighter, quieter aircraft to implementing augmented reality for passengers in the cabin, the aircraft manufacturer is on the bleeding edge of design and technology. And IT plays a substantial role in creating the aircraft of the future.

Airbus research and development spend is among the highest in the world, standing at €3.1bn. Some 800 researchers work on its technical excellence strategy, which is shaped around 20 key technology strategies.

Simon Bradley, vice-president head of global innovation network, systems and product architecture and engineering at Airbus Group, said one of the really interesting areas is advanced manufacturing and the factory of the future, which uses processes and tools including 3D printing in the aerospace industry.

“The challenge is the things we make are very large and there’s a lot of investment involved in building an aircraft,” says Bradley.

He explains that it can be challenging to introduce disruptive technologies such as 3D printing to production lines which already work very well, often churning out 40 aircraft every month.

And the design, development, production and ongoing support process is enormously long. “When you look at the life of an aircraft, from the time someone puts it on a piece of paper, designs, tests and puts it into the world – it could potentially be 75 years,” says Bradley.

Software and hardware

And 75 years is a long time when it comes to software. The Airbus A380 has 120 million lines of code. 

“When considering 120 million lines of software over a 75-year period, think about safety and quality – you can’t just bring it back for a quick software upgrade,” says Bradley. “And the international space station, the software that went up there, barring some updates, it has to work – you can’t send a software engineer into space.”

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When building the A300 craft, Airbus had to maintain a complete library of all the code that was around in the 1970s. Additionally, aircraft require single-core processors which, in a smart technology market, are not easy to get hold of.

“When building an aircraft, we have to stock up and buy lots of single-core processors, which is a major challenge,” he says, explaining that chip manufacturers no longer have an interest in making single-core processors.

When building a new craft, Airbus stockpiles a lot of single-core processors, meanwhile the manufacturer also owns its own clean rooms and component manufacturing facilities to build some of these rare computing parts.

“We’re working with some of the chip manufacturers on getting multi-core certified for flight, but there are a lot of hoops and we represent a small part of the market compared with smartphones,” he says. “It’s supply and demand.”

Big data

While on-board software aids in aircraft operations, the planes are also fitted with thousands of sensors which store information.

An Airbus 320 takes off or lands every 2.5 seconds somewhere in the world. Every 30 minutes they generate 1TB of information – that’s a lot of terabytes

Simon Bradley, Airbus Group

“If you fly from London to Paris, typically you’ll be on an Airbus 320 small family aircraft. One of those takes off or lands every 2.5 seconds somewhere in the world. Every 30 minutes they generate 1TB of information – that’s a lot of terabytes,” says Bradley.

Gathering this volume of data helps Airbus manage fleet maintenance, predict weather patterns, plan efficient routes and maximise flight efficiency. While some information gets transmitted back to base while in flight, the majority of maintenance information isn’t considered a priority and is gathered as the plane approaches the gate.

Using this information, Airbus can look at a specific part that will soon need replacing, say in three months’ time, and can find out in advance where that plane is going to be so the part can be shipped to the designated airport. 

This use of data is called predictive maintenance. Airbus also uses predictive maintenance for its defence and space craft. 

“The interesting big data challenges are not in the production, but the design of a product,” says Bradley. “If you want to change the shape of a wing or helicopter body, it traditionally takes two to three days to recompute all of the design parameters. We’re looking at new mathematical algorithms to reduce that to 30 minutes.”

Many airlines recognise the benefits of a big data strategy, according to Bradley.

Customer experience

Meanwhile, airlines are also using big data to improve passengers’ journey through the airport and provide them with information about their flight. 

“Quite a few people don’t bother with boarding cards, using their smartphones instead,” notes Bradley. “Five years ago, that concept didn’t exist, but BA now shows where I’ve flown in the past 10 years, how many times, where I’m going – it’s all about improving the customer experience.”

Airbus is also concentrating on the customer experience factor, by researching how to create next-generation cabins at its innovation centre in Hamburg. Bradley says the company is looking to augmented reality to help improve the passenger experience, as well as lighting technologies to change the interior lights to match the time zone to reduce jet lag.

“We’re also looking at state-of-the-art OLED screens for the side of the aircraft so you can look out and picture the destination you’re going to,” he says. “You could then use your tablet to find information. For example, if you’re flying to Singapore we could give you a tour projected onto the back of the seat in front of you.”

Innovation and the best of British

Working with organisations such as Innovate UK, Airbus is seeking to build up the UK’s technical capability. 

“How can we be not just the best of British, but the best of global? [We want to] work together to share information around best practices to help shape policy for government in terms of how they want us to structure research,” says Bradley.

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One such example is a partnership with Cardiff University to research lightning. On average, Bradley says, a plane in flight is hit once a year by a lightning bolt. “To certify the plane is safe, we have to take parts of an aircraft and shoot lightning at it,” he explains.

Airbus had a €20m lightning laboratory in France where this testing occurred, but when location costs started to become too expensive, the manufacturer spoke to Cardiff University about relocating the lab.

“The Welsh government agreed, and we took it apart block by block, put it in boxes and shipped it to Cardiff University,” he says.

As part of the agreement, Airbus still gets to use the lab, which was donated, but the Welsh government paid for shipping and the cost of upkeep for the next three years, while it is staffed by Cardiff University.

“It’s a really good example of how the UK government can come together and, in the space of a few months, have one of the best lightning labs in the world,” says Bradley. “These are the things we can do together to keep Britain on the map.”

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