What do the people guiding technology investments for the aerospace industry think lies ahead? To find out, Aviation Week talked to the chief technologists of industry leaders: John Tracy, who retires this year after 35 years at Boeing, 10 of them as chief technology officer (CTO); Keoki Jackson, Lockheed Martin CTO; Andy Anderson, deputy CTO at Airbus Group; and Mark Russell, Raytheon’s vice president of engineering, technology and mission assurance.

AW&ST  For you, what have been the most important developments?

Tracy  The intersection of materials and computer sciences has been the biggest change in my career. When I started, we were taking pieces of aluminum, bending them, putting them onto large, heavy, expensive fixtures, drilling them and bolting thousands of pieces together. Because of computational power, we got 3-D design. Numerically controlled machines let us get away from sheet metal to monolithically machined parts.

[Then] there was this huge shift in mentality from thinking composites were just for performance to where they could save you cost, too, even though the raw materials were more expensive. I have spent my entire career working composites. When I joined Boeing from Hercules, my dream was a simple one: I believed that composites were going to take over the world. Seeing the 787 leave the runway in Everett in 2009 was just a dream come true.

The other thing so impressive to me is this year-over-year, 1-1.5% improvement in efficiency of our products. The 787 is probably 75% more fuel-efficient than the original jet transports and 90% quieter. There’s been this incredible convergence of materials science, aerodynamics, advanced systems, all wrapped together with engine technology that has allowed us to continue to march down that path.

Jackson  The first is unquestionably the transition from analog to digital and the microelectronics revolution driven by Moore’s Law. Besides the fact that most of us carry at least one supercomputer on our body now, it has completely changed the cockpit and revolutionized aviation safety.

For me, the pinnacle is the F-35 cockpit. You’ve got this incredible fusion technology combined with the advanced displays in the helmet. The pilot has full battlespace characterization and information in his helmet from all the onboard sensors. He can share it with the ground and other pilots.

Another example, in the F-16 is our Auto Ground Collison Avoidance System, which is saving pilots through technology that not only models the dynamics of the airplane but uses all the sensing onboard to save lives.

And the third is how we design stuff, which continues to evolve very fast. Computer-aided modeling and simulation and finite element modeling was the initial enabler. Now it’s in everything we design. So we’re designing products that are dramatically better.

Anderson  Within the last couple of years, I think the most important is the work we’ve been doing on electric flight. The E-Fan 1 [demonstrator] has been teaching us valuable information about where to look in the future, because electric flight is fundamentally different from electric automobiles.

The other area is broadband connectivity. For example, the European Data Relay System, which is laser-based communication in space and to ground, is a breakthrough in terms of getting bandwidth—and quality real-time connectivity—anywhere on the globe.

Materials is a topic that will continue into the future. APWorks is a small company we have started up that is looking at 3-D-printing compounds for the aerospace industry. It looks at aluminum powders—Scalmalloy is one we developed—then titanium.

Eventually, it will go into space. And how do you 3-D print in space? We’re looking at materials, then the production of key parts and eventually printing spare parts or components in space instead of flying them up there.

Russell  Using 3-D printing, we’ve been able to turn components of missiles dozens of times to get the exact component we need. It has changed the way we think about our missile and radar businesses. We can make these turns in weeks that used to take years.

We’ve invested in our Cyber Operations, Development and Evaluation Center. It allows us to do cyberengineering­offense and defense, force on force. It’s used to check out our products and weapons systems, taking processor loops and hardware loops and attacking and defending them so we can show our products are cyber-hard.

AW&ST How important will environmental stewardship be in the future?

Tracy  When I started, that was not the top on people’s lists, but I’ve seen how concern for the environment continues to drive us to build planes that are more efficient. We’re going to keep driving efficiency. We believe we’ll still get the 1.5% a year. We know the engine companies are doing things like geared turbofan, higher bypass ratios, higher exhaust gas temperatures, using ceramics on stationary and rotating parts.

We believe we’ll get to carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and back to the CO2 level produced in 2005 by 2050. A good fraction of that is just continuing to improve performance, the advanced concepts we work on with NASA and others, the continued electrification.

I think one of the big enablers is going to be energy storage. The fuels we have today are very efficient, but if we can get to other forms of energy storage—whether batteries, supercapacitors, flywheels, or even more advanced things—then I’d think we’ll go to the next step in terms of radical efficiency improvements and zero emissions. Safe hydrogen storage would be another one.

Anderson  E-Fan 2 takes what we learned in E-Fan 1 and looks at how we start preparing and understanding, not the technology so much, but toward using electric propulsion seriously in future programs. When you go to an electric or a hybrid design, you open up a completely new design space. That’s the key: opening up a space that allows you to design aircraft differently in the future.

The other thing is to understand the ground infrastructure needed for electric flight, like the car industry implementing electric vehicles and charging stations. What does it need? Also, like the automobile industry, what is the acceptance when you have a hybrid or an electric product?

We will build in a facility that will allow us to test up to 10-megawatt hybrid configurations, in myriad combinations. It’s a research program that’s in its early stages, but it looks at serious, big distributed propulsion systems.

AW&ST  What are next big breakthroughs in the R&D pipeline?

Jackson  We’re investing in quantum information sciences: sensing, communications, computing. I see this taking us beyond those physical limits of Moore’s Law, where we’ll be able to solve problems that are truly computationally intractable today. In complex system design, these are the kinds of tools that allow you to do instantaneous verification and validation of highly complex software systems.

We are starting to do our designs as full 3-D models from the beginning to the end of the life cycle. We’re going from concept and requirements to architecture, through design in 3-D models with physics-based simulations wrapped around them, to the manufacturing and integration tests and ultimately sustainment in the field, all living within that virtual environment.

For spacecraft, our initial attempts are taking out half the cycle time and cost, and only getting better. Our 3-D multirobotic additive manufacturing clusters combine industrial robots on a large scale with the ability to 3-D-print on a small scale. This will ultimately let us literally print a satellite.

Another is automation in the cockpit. And we’re in that transition now, from automation to autonomy. Now your pilot is going to be able to control, by himself, a squadron of diverse unpiloted vehicles to do a mission. It is going to be human supervisory control, but at the squadron versus the individual level. And think about swarms of low-cost, autonomous vehicles exploring our planet, gathering data in real time, then take that to our Solar System.

Russell  We’re investing in a new kind of laser element called a planar waveguide. It’s a slab about the size of a ruler. We’re investing in this because there are niches where you want a laser that will fit in a smaller platform, something to put out significant power in a much smaller form factor.

The two biggest issues in lasers are combining the beams and handling the heat. If you put in 30 kW of power, you get out 10-20 kW, and the rest goes into heat. It’s a challenging engineering-science-chemistry project. But if this technology works, it’s an order of magnitude smaller and more efficient.

We’ve recently built the pulse-power module for a 30-megajoule-ish railgun that will fire a hypervelocity projectile about 100 nm. That’s the equivalent of what it took the space shuttle to take off. One of the biggest problems has been creating the pulse power needed, and we’ve just completed demonstrating the pulse power networks.

Another one is hypersonics. We’re demonstrating air-launched hypersonic boost-glide systems with speeds that allow them to skip across the inside of the Earth’s upper atmosphere before descending to their targets.

And one of our technology bets is machine learning. When we talk about cyber, machine learning is rules-based. But the future is more behavioral analytics. Artificial intelligence is a big topic. The world of neural networks, of behavioral analytics is going to be big in defense and commercial.

Tracy  Improvement in computational capability will continue to drive us. Another one is autonomy and using that computational power. Using the 787’s 17 million lines of code to allow it to feel like a 777, so pilots only take a few days to get checked out versus a few weeks is a huge payoff. Another is the flight control laws that allow wing load alleviation, so you save 10,000 lb. of material weight using software.

We’ll continue to see computational advances with machine learning and neuromorphic computing. We’ll continue to see this convergence of big data and data analytics on the ground hooked up into the air to allow us to have planes that are more efficient, safer and require less maintenance.

Planes in some sense have the capability to take off, land and navigate on their own today. We will continue to see the relationship between the pilot’s and plane’s capability mature and reach a balanced level that customers are comfortable with for the transport of people and freight.

The next thing is blurring the lines between airliners and space transports. You see that happening today. And blurring the lines between large commercial transports and individual transportation— eventually we’ll have a multimodal system where you go from your house to some other place with an integrated mobility experience that’s branded.

Anderson   The whole gambit around what people call digitization is important. Data analytics will work themselves into the company, in our products and the way we are thinking. Digitization and knowing and using your data is fundamental.

There are a number of layers here. One is how we analyze the data and the necessary algorithms behind it. We  have a couple of programs on quantum computing. One is validation; the other is the entire design process. In the space area, there things you can then do, because you have the ability to do real-time decision-making, not just automated decision-making.

AW&ST  Should aerospace be faster-moving, like Silicon Valley?

Jackson  The expectations for a Lockheed Martin and an F-35 are much, much higher than for a startup company and a software application. So you have to think about the scale and scope of what we’re doing.

When you talk about innovation, you inevitably say, “We need to start something like a Skunk Works,” and we have the pace of innovation in our advanced development programs that we’ve always had. I think we continue to set the standard for rapid development.

Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center has been in Silicon Valley since the start. We are embedded in that culture today. We draw from the same pipeline of students and innovators and entrepreneurs.

We partner with many of these fast-paced companies in fields like data analytics and quantum information sciences, and we fund their research, partner with them and often acquire them to bring those technologies into Lockheed Martin. It augments the innovation that goes on in-house, in areas that the commercial sector is not interested in or poised to address.

Anderson  Here in Munich we have the Ludwig Bolkow Campus. It is a collection of aerospace companies we are involved in—but we are not the only people involved—where we open up some of our technology work and put it into a startup or open innovation environment. That’s something we will do more in the future.

The design time will decrease radically, whether or not the period between aircraft comes down. The speed of design, of decision-making for design, are increasing. Just look at OneWeb. We will have satellites in the sky at an unprecedented rate compared to the way we used to do it.

Tracy  This is not a new concept. If I go back to the mid ‘80s, the Strategic Defense Initiative had explicit principles about rapid prototyping, building a little, testing a little, breaking a little and having an iterative approach to product development.

But that has to be used in the right setting, on the right products. For certain things, you have to have a very rigorous process to assure their safety and integrity. For other things, you can have a rapid development. If you look at some of the prototypes we’ve done over the last few years, whether it’s Phantom Ray, EchoVoyager or X-51, we see a place for that, but it shouldn’t be applied everywhere.

That’s why we have different entities inside of Boeing where there are engineers. Our Boeing Research & Technology team is 4,000 people working across every boundary in the company doing R&D, where it’s absolutely OK to fail. We’re trying things where there are risks associated, and the only way to understand whether they’re going to work is to try them out.

Once we have those technologies, we have two other groups that take those technologies and see how they work in systems. There we want things to work, but it’s OK if they don’t.

AW&ST  Do industry’s problems mean things are too complex?

Tracy  As you try for higher levels of performance, and requirements get more stringent, you end up with more complex systems. Our industry has been developing tools to better handle these complexities. Model-based systems engineering allows you to merge the power of the computer with the expertise of engineers, so you can predict system performance before you build. I do think we’re getting better.

There is an industry-wide acknowledgement that we need to drive complexity out of our products, have simplicity in design. It’s a high priority. We’re continuing down that path, to understand that the sooner you set the requirements, the better you are and that you don’t allow those to creep. You only add things to the product that create true value for the customer.

Jackson  These are problems created by our success. Yes, we’re building these incredibly capable and complex systems, but how often do you have significant failures? Compare it to previous generations, where it would be unthinkable to have an almost 100% mission-success mind-set going into a first article in a development program. I think we’ve raised the bar, and expectations are much higher today than a generation or two ago.

But the good news is that the advances in electronics and software are improving our ability to debug both the designs and the manufacturing process.

On the GPS program, we built the entire spacecraft in virtual reality before we built a piece of hardware. It enables you to get first-pass success at mechanical assembly we haven’t had in previous generations. Now you can eliminate many of the most common design flaws automatically by virtue of the capabilities of design tools themselves.

AW&ST  What major challenges or opportunities are ahead for us?

Tracy  We don’t think it’s acceptable to see costs continue to go up. We know our customers are demanding more capability for less. We’ve seen in the auto and semiconductor industries that you get significantly more capability for less money each year. This was why we created the Boeing Product Development System.

Our sole intention there was to maintain the levels of product integrity. With that as our highest priority, we have now added a goal of breaking the cost curve, where we can radically shift the slope, if you plot the cost of aerospace products over the last 50 years. That curve was broken by the auto and semiconductor industries.

We believe we can do the same with aerospace products if we follow certain disciplines around, only adding the features that create value for the customer and having very rigorous approaches to how we get the work done—when you start things, when you end them. We are doing everything in our power to break this cost curve.

Jackson   I’d start with investment in basic research. Fifty years ago, about 9% of the federal budget was R&D; it’s about 3% today. Over the last decade, we have seen it decline as a percentage of GDP by about 25%. And that is the seed corn, the basic R&D that eventually ends up in the products we see, whether it is in aerospace or Silicon Valley. A huge fraction of that is still sponsored by the federal government.

We have been eating our seed corn and are putting ourselves in an innovation deficit. Extend that to infrastructure. There has been a lot made of the challenges in transportation, or water and energy, but a lot less visible is the infrastructure for R&D. I worry we are continuing to underinvest significantly in our laboratories. That infrastructure is something we need to modernize and take into the next generation.

One thing that is going to reshape many industries is the convergence of IT, micro-electronics and biology. It is too early to say what this will achieve, but you can see it is going to have dramatic effects.

Russell  We’ve got to make sure we’re including a cyber-hardened capability in all our products. Many of our systems are going from 75% hardware/25% software to 25% hardware/75% software. Radar, which was very much an analog machine in the past, now has the analog-to-digital converter moving way up front from subarray digital beam-forming to element-level beam-forming. We’re sampling right up at the antenna and then letting the best hardware be driven by software that gets the most out it.

We’re going to be able to accept all the energy coming back and process it all. Think of yourself in a room with 20 people yelling at you. In the past, you could only hear one and talk to one. Now you can hear them all, sort out who’s talking to you from where and null out the one you don’t want to hear.

Future radars will be capable of surveillance, communications, electronic warfare­—collapsing all the functions in a single aperture.

Anderson  Electric flight, materials, and then how we produce aircraft. The factory of the future is what’s happening now. How do you automate certain processes? The future, in terms of technology, is how do we want to build aircraft in 30 years’ time? What are the fundamentals of how an aircraft should be designed? What does the design space look like? We’re at the beginning of a new era. Many things define that new era, but one is distributed propulsion.


AW&ST  Any disappointments, things you expected that didn’t happen?

Tracy  There are several things that are continuing to develop at a steady pace. We saw hybrid laminar flow control. We’re seeing natural laminar flow. We’ve done testing on active flow control. We’re moving on that path.

I thought we would have seen ultra-high-bypass, because when I started in the ’90s there were airplanes flying with [open rotors]. It turns out we haven’t needed that yet. And in the ’90s, high-speed civil transport was big; 300 passengers, Mach 2.7. I thought that would have come along.

The reason a lot of these things didn’t come along was because the customers haven’t wanted them. The business case didn’t close for them, but I think the technology was there. Another is single-stage-to-orbit. I’m happy to see people building on the lessons that we learned from DC-X.

Jackson  I am still looking forward to personal space travel, widespread commercial supersonic flight, fusion power. When it comes down to it, we have to continue to think big. We have to be bold, and we have to reach for the stars. I do believe that the aerospace industry continues to do that. 

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