Podcast: 50 Years Of Innovation

Former Collins Aerospace executive John Borghese joins Aviation Week executive editors Graham Warwick and Carole Hedden to reflect on the last 50 years of innovation in aerospace and look at what is coming down the pipe. They discuss the most significant changes in that half century, as well as what they consider to be the greatest challenges ahead for aerospace.

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Rush Transcript

Carole Hedden:

Welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Carole Hedden, the Executive Editor for Custom Content and Program Excellence at Aviation Week, and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week's Advanced Air Mobility Report. In those two roles, I've had the opportunity to work with some of the aerospace and defense industries' top innovators. And I have to say, the two gentlemen joining me today are among those.

Carole Hedden:

Innovation remains a topic of great concern to the industry, particularly in this day and age, as we face an intersection of unbelievable challenges: the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the need for immediate and agile responses to support NATO and Ukraine; the necessity to reinvent commercial aerospace, to eliminate emissions and address overall climate change; and, third, the continuing quest to return humans to the surface of the moon while also maintaining the aging International Space Station and creating an all new gateway to space exploration. And finally, of course, the birthing of an entirely new industry sector with advanced air mobility.

Each involves a careful orchestration of new design tools, new materials, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, autonomy, and the ability to quickly develop new software solutions that can alter the capability of a platform in hours or days instead of years and decades.

With us to discuss this are John Borghese and Graham Warwick. John recently retired from Collins Aerospace capping off a 50-year career that began with the drawdown from the war in Vietnam and through today's world where we are seeing all of these innovations and challenges. John has also been a member of the NASA Aeronautics Committee since 2011 and was its Chair from 2017 to 2021.

With us too, is Graham Warwick, Aviation Week's Executive Editor for Technology. In this role, Graham has worked with John several times, including an Aviation Week study of innovation across the industry, as well as on technology developments. Graham graduated in aeronautical engineering just a bit after John and worked in advanced design at Hawker Siddeley Aviation in the UK before becoming an aerospace journalist. He's won a lot of awards. And as you all know, he leads us as a mentor, as well as a journalist.

Between the two of you, you've seen a lot of change and a lot of innovation. John, over the course of this half century, and that sounds weird even saying it to you because you're young at heart, what has been the most significant technological change you have seen?

John Borghese:

Thank you, Carole. Good to talk to you again. And thanks for asking. I really have two items for you with the first being the move from analog to digital, which has been driven by advances in semiconductor technology. When I first started in 1972, I actually worked on two systems, anti-skid and radar altimeters, but both of them were analog systems. And what semiconductor technology brought us with central processing and CPUs at that time—they came out in 1970—microprocessors brought us better safety systems like TCAS and ground props, better flight control systems like fly-by-wire, better communication systems, including communications from Satcom. And while it's not embedded, the better FAA air traffic control systems that have made the ability to fly many, many more aircraft safely. So, that's driven by micro processes in the '70s. And now we have GPUs that are allowing us to do machine learning in the 2020s.

John Borghese:

The other technology is engine technology. So the first high bypass ratio aircraft was a [Boeing] 747. And while the type of wing-and-tube structure with two engines under them has remained fixed over the last 50 years, engine technology has made significant progress, both in new material technology like ceramics and composites and better design tools, which have made engines much more efficient. Can you imagine how much fuel aviation would use if we were using 707 engines? We'd probably use half the hydrocarbons in the world today.

Carole Hedden:

Sure enough. And Graham, what about you?

Graham Warwick:

Yeah. Actually, I've settled down on the same sort of thing. And to be honest, my many visits to John's lab at Collins kind of underlines this. This whole analog-to-digital thing that happened in my lifetime and John's as well, really where we took things that we used to do in physical and mechanical means, levers and pivots and all these sort of things and hydraulics and all that sort of stuff, and we turned it into software. And that allowed us to take a lot of physical complexity out of things. I think we put a lot of digital complexity into things when doing that, but it allowed us to then sort of do things that we just couldn't imagine when we were constrained by purely mechanical.

Graham Warwick:

And I think, to me, the biggest thing is the evolution of what I think DARPA coined as being cyber physical, where you really, really intelligently combine the mechanical with the software, the physical with the software. And you come up with systems that have got brains. Whereas you'd get a dumb actuator back then, now, you've an actuator with a processor attached that can do some very clever things.

And I think we'll get to this later in this podcast, but I also think that the digitalization of everything that we touch in aerospace is going to dramatically change the art of aerospace, what you physically do as an engineer and the tools that you work with and the products that you produce. So I would have to focus. And again, I've seen, John has demonstrated some of these things to me many times over the years, as the things you can do once you bring software to a system in aerospace.

Carole Hedden:

John, I think that that was one of the things that you touched upon when we were preparing for this is how much things have changed in terms of the enterprise or the people and how they work within aerospace and defense. Could you talk about that just a little bit as well?

John Borghese:

Sure. Be glad to. So I think the biggest impact, at least from a workforce, and I'll say personally for me, was working for the first company, an aerospace I worked for, which was Bendix that became Allied, that became AlliedSignal, that is now Honeywell was an organization that was engineering driven to an organization that was business driven. When I first started, the head of engineering really had, I'd say, the key decisions on investment in the company, at least the company I was with, Bendix, and that moved to really business decisions in the future.

John Borghese:

The next one is consolidation. I just looked online, and I saw that from the early '80s to today, 73 aerospace companies are now down to five, which is a huge change and driven by a number of things.

One is the complexity of aircraft and the huge investments needed to develop those aircraft.

From a workforce point of view, I'd say, is that in the '60s, aerospace and defense was cool. Because of the winding down of the space program and the finishing of the 747 and also winding down of the Vietnam War, aerospace and defense became less cool. People weren't interested in being in there.

That has now changed again with the innovation that is coming in, in areas such as supersonic aircraft and advanced air mobility. So it's gone through, to me, a cycle for the workforce.

Carole Hedden:

One of the things you said was about consolidation, and I'm curious, what are kind of your thoughts? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

John Borghese:

I don't know. I think we're going to need another 50 years to find out. I'd say is that I'm a little concerned that have we gone too far.

So in the 1970s, there were three companies in the U.S. that were developing air transport aircraft, Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, and Boeing. Now we have one. So if that one company slips up, are they really providing us the innovation that maybe two companies would've provided in the U.S.? I mean, the reason that we have innovation now is because of the competition between Airbus and Boeing.

I understand why they did that, because you need horrendous amounts of money to develop a new aircraft. But are there other ways of getting the funding instead of just consolidation into very, very few companies?

Graham Warwick:

Yeah. And I have some thoughts on that. I mean, one of the results of consolidation is either of the consolidation or the actual outright disappearance of corporate labs that would be... I mean, and I'm not talking about top of the corporation, I'm talking about sometimes labs within divisions. As they consolidate, these labs get sort of rolled together. And then the consolidated corporations, R&D priorities kind of get led on top of all these units. And I think the end result is a loss of diversity in R&D within aerospace, and a lot of the outsourcing of innovation to... now, we have got a healthy startup ecosystem that comes along and it's very tempting to reach into that healthy, diverse ecosystem… but I think that that's also a challenge to justifying the corporate R&D.

Graham Warwick:

It comes down to, it's not just money decisions. You have to really decide what thing you can do as a corporation that will differentiate you, that you can't go and buy from a startup or whatever. And I think that the industry has suffered from that over the years, because I think it's just hollowed out some of the degrees of diversity of approaches being researched within companies.

I mean, John's experienced this. He's gone through many, many corporate transitions, and I'm sure every time that's happened, he's had to go back to the table and justify his technology decisions saying, as company X, these are the things we must focus on, these are the differentiators. And then he's got somebody now from corporate Y that's in charge saying, yes, but we can go get that somewhere else. What about this company Z we bought over here [that] wants to spend money on this.

Graham Warwick:

And I think that consolidation, I think, has made it really, really hard for aerospace to know where to invest. The customer sometimes hasn't helped. The DOD’s [U.S. Defense Department has] not provided strong enough technology pulls sometimes to help the R&D community sell their ideas. And I think that relying on startups, although it's cool and fun, a startup can cease to exist tomorrow. So I think there's a deep challenge with consolidation that we have to worry about.

John Borghese:

Yeah. Yeah. I'd like to follow up on that. You're absolutely correct, Graham. Now I have an MBA, and MBAs, with their [focus on] return on investment—it's the kiss of death for technology organizations and companies, because it's very hard to come up when you discount cash flow, how do you justify the investment in there? And I remember meeting with Arati Prabhakar who was the Head of DARPA several years ago. She said, "Why does Rockwell Collins at the time have an advanced technology organization?"

It boiled down to the CEO saying, "We need to do this." And it wasn't based upon financials. He just said, "We need to do this to be viable." And she said, "Yeah, it turns out that companies that have technology organizations are driven by the decision by the head of the company to do that, not on financial decisions."

Graham Warwick:

Can I just jump in here and say, John said, right at the very beginning, I think it's a key thing he said, when John's career started, when my career started, defense and aerospace was an aspirational career. Whether you wanted to be a pilot or whether you wanted to be an engineer, it was an aspirational career because of the space program and because we were building supersonic airplanes and all this cool stuff. It ceased to be an aspirational career at some point along the way. And I think the industry failed to actually communicate that aerospace and defense can be challenging, complex, and rewarding as a career.

Graham Warwick:

And I think that the shift from technology-driven management to financial-driven management has accelerated that because the financial managers are not focused on communicating the challenges and the rewards of a technology career. And it's companies like Collins that did have the leadership that saw the value of technology that ultimately end up getting you the best people. If you can communicate that technology-led strategy, people will come to you because they see then that they'll give you a rewarding career. And I think that's where we kind of went wrong.

Carole Hedden:

I just want to piggyback on something that Graham said, and that's, I did a interview with Supernal, which is the Hyundai advanced air mobility division. And one of the things that they found was that in hiring people, they started out looking for the same thing that aerospace had always looked for and ended up having to rewrite job descriptions, because they didn't want that pedigree. What they wanted was that aspirational mind, that curiosity and seeking versus merely the same old that look the same.

So I wanted to move us along and it's really about right now. Because we have two questions left, right now and the future. So if you were going to say right now, what do you see as the most significant innovation challenges facing the industry? What would those be, John?

John Borghese:

Well, I would say it's getting the best students entering into aerospace and defense. And that's two-fold. One is, as Graham said, to make it exciting for them to want to enter. But I'd say the other part is, if you look at PhDs that are being graduated from leading universities in the U.S., many of them are foreign students. And that means they're restricted from defense and a lot of aerospace to begin with.

So John Zolper, who was the Director of MTO (microsystems technology office) at DARPA about 10 years ago told me, "You know what we ought to do is hand a U.S. citizenship application to every foreign PhD in the U.S."

I think the other one is being able to do classified work from home. You can't do that today. If you're going to get the best people, they're not going to want to work in a room that doesn't have windows. And so you need to do that.

John Borghese:

The other area that I think we need to work on is more accelerated diversity in aerospace. So we have not done a good job. I think with females, we've done an okay job. Certainly with African Americans, we have not done very well at all. I had two African Americans in my class at USC (University of Southern California). In my research organization, I had two. I don't think we've progressed. And I know we're working on it now, but that's been a disappointment over the last 50 years.

John Borghese:

And then I'd say the other area is adapting to technologies that have high velocity of change. And what I'm saying is, especially in defense, we make big investments that go on for years and years and the world changes and technology changes.

So I'll give you one example is lasers are changing dramatically fast. I worked on a VCSEL (vertical cavity surface-emitting lasers), which is a vertical line laser, 15 years ago. And I think we got one to work after a million dollars. There are three VCSELs in my phone that recognize my face, that cost $20. And so are lasers going to replace precision-guided weapons and maybe ballistic missile defense over the next 10, 15 years?

Carole Hedden:

Graham, what about you?

Graham Warwick:

Gosh. I'm not sure how to express this. I tend to think that some aspects of engineering, it's a bit like learning to fly. The first thing, you get in an airplane, and you just see an instrument panel full of instruments, right? Little dials wiggling around. And we should have got rid of those 20 or 30 years ago, right? You don't need those to fly an airplane anymore.

And I sometimes think that engineering is the same. We hire somebody to be an engineer, and then we give them like these programs that you have to learn how to do this, that, and the other. We need to automate as much of engineering as we can and unleash the creativity to use the tools. And I think that will help with the diversity, because a lot of people don't want to be, in effect, digital drafts persons or whatever. They want to be solution creators.

And I think if we can get the tools to a point where… like open their cellphone box and not even look at the instruction manual and still be able to use your phone. If you can walk into a design office and use all the design tools in a design office without having to read the manual, then you can unleash the creativity on top of that.

And I think that will bring the diversity because I think that going forward, it's all about multidisciplinary engineering. It's all about teaching people to work at the interfaces between traditional systems, because that's where all of the challenges are, it's where all of the advances are, is at the interfaces between these systems. And if we can automate the basic stuff as much as possible and unleash the creativity, then we can tackle those interfaces and come up with more optimized solutions.

John Borghese:

Yeah. I agree, Graham. I'd like to add one other thing that I think we need to do. Wee go off and develop an aircraft, and then there's a gap. And so all the lessons learned are forgotten by the engineers, the new engineers aren't mentored, and then we have the same learning process on the next one.

I think Airbus, at least they have been focused on, ‘we keep our design engineers continuously involved in various items.’

And they do that so they don't have that gap. The other thing I think is necessary for engineering students over the next 50 years is to keep learning. I mean, in the technology organization I was running until February, I did this estimate, 60% of the technologies we were working on hadn't been invented when I graduated.

Carole Hedden:

What comes next for John Borghese? Because I just don't see you sitting back and retiring.

John Borghese:

Well, thank you, Carole. And I think you're right. So my basic goals are to be mentally and physically active and to have fun. So I'm doing basically two things. One is, I'm starting with a couple of friends that are university professors, an idea on the academic publishing process and using machine learning to be able to facilitate and make it faster and less expensive in the process.

The other one is, there's so many technologies that I've wanted to learn that I haven't had time to learn, because you're working the whole day and then you do email at night. And so when do you have a chance to take a course? And now there's some great courses online by leading universities. I'm taking one in photonics from MIT OpenCourseWare, one from Yale. I'm taking multiple courses in machine learning. So, that's what I am doing, staying quite active in those areas.

Carole Hedden:

Ever the student. Well, unfortunately we need to leave it there. And join us again next week for another episode of Check 6. John and Graham, thanks a lot for joining me today. This has been a fantastic conversation. Bye for now. And thanks for listening.

Carole Rickard Hedden

Carole Rickard Hedden is Executive Editor for custom content and Program Excellence for the Aviation Week Network, providing custom content and research to industry executives. She also is Managing Editor of Aviation Week’s Advanced Air Mobility Report.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.