Investment in technology crossing the boundary into space

X-Ray material inspection gantry enables production of unmanned systems

Andy Pye looks at the move to take commercial aerospace beyond its normal boundaries and into the emerginh space market.

More people than ever before are using aviation to travel. In fact, there were over 78 million passengers at UK airports in the third quarter of 2015 alone, according to travel statistics from the Civil Aviation Authority.

But further into the future, space is emerging as a new frontier for private investors. Individuals can get a slice of the multi-planetary action for as little as US $25,000. Angel investors are helping to finance out-of-this-world entrepreneurial projects in a race reminiscent of the early days of Internet and tech-start-up funding.

The space sector is subject to fierce competition as never before.  Start-ups worldwide and companies in emerging markets are forcing more established businesses to transform their operations to be versatile, high-performing and cost competitive.

Getting in at the seed stage is vital to fuel an industry which according to Chad Anderson, CEO of Space Angels Network, brings space start-ups together with investors and holds enormous opportunity. “There’s a lot of business in space which is new,” he says, pointing out opportunities in reusable launch technology, small satellite constellations, private in-space habitats, lunar logistics and asteroid mining.

Speaking ahead of his January visit to the UAE capital this year, where he joined a panel at the Global Space Congress, Anderson said there are now hundreds of companies coming up in the space sphere. Three major trends are making the space sector accessible to start-ups for the first time – reduced launch costs, miniaturisation of technology and standardisation.

Anderson joined a panel at the Global Space Congress to examine Financing Space. Addressing a global audience of over 600 space experts, including space agency leaders, space and aerospace executives, government ministers, top researchers and academics, the panel shared its insights on where space investment is coming from, how its return on investment can be calculated and its impact on the funding of R&D projects and innovative space technologies.

Angel investment, Anderson says, will be the engine for entrepreneurial advancement of space opportunities. “Four years ago we averaged one deal per month for our members, today, we bring in two or three quality deals each month. Business is picking up on both the investor and entrepreneur sides of the equation,” he says. “There’s real excitement mounting, a real buzz around space much as when investment in the Internet took off. And because there has been investment from well-known players, other mainstream investors are now interested in backing private space companies.”

SpaceX has already demonstrated a big step towards fully reusable spacecraft. The first stage rocket of one of its Falcon 9 launchers, having successfully lofted cargo to the International Space Station, managed to turn itself around, bleed off the enormous kinetic energy it had acquired while its main engines were burning, fly back down to Earth and land vertically – with balletic precision – on a rather tiny looking robotic barge floating somewhere in the Atlantic.

Unmanned air systems

During a major innovation speech at the University of Oxford in late February, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon announced the launch of an £8 million two-year second phase of innovative research and development, exploring the future of unmanned air systems.

Developed in partnership with Leonardo Helicopters in Yeovil, the Rotary Wing Unmanned Air Systems (RWUAS) Capability Concept Demonstrator is aimed to help UK Armed Forces understand how unmanned air systems can support its personnel on the battlefields of the future by developing new concepts and technologies.

Westland Helicopters was a British aerospace company; originally Westland Aircraft, the company focused on helicopters after the Second World War. It was amalgamated with several other British firms in 1960 and 1961. In 2001, it merged with Italian helicopter manufacturer Agusta to form AgustaWestland (in turn merged into Leonardo-Finmeccanica since 2016).

“Defence is working with partners across the country to harness innovation to keep this country safe and build a prosperous economy for everyone,” Fallon said. “Backed by our rising defence budget and £178bn Equipment Plan, this joint research will deliver the understanding our Armed Forces need to maintain our military advantage in the future.”

The jointly funded programme will utilise the specialist engineering skill base at Leonardo Helicopters by exploring emerging rotary wing technologies and methods. It aims to identify, develop and exploit the opportunities offered by emerging technologies, to reduce costs and increase the agility, flexibility, resilience and persistence of UK rotary wing capability. The announcement comes after the Royal Navy led ‘Unmanned Warrior’ in 2016: a major international demonstration of autonomous systems which could transform the way in which the Armed Forces of the future help keep Britain safe.

Chief Executive Officer of the MOD’s Defence Equipment and Support Organisation, Tony Douglas, said: “This project also highlights how we collaborate effectively with industry, utilising skills across both organisations to fully understand the emerging capabilities in the unmanned arena.”

SD150 – Hero

The SD-150 Hero is a state-of-the-art Short Range Tactical Rotary Unmanned Air Vehicle (RUAV) that is designed and manufactured by the Finmeccanica Helicopter Division. Hero design criteria comply with both civil and military international regulations requirements and is developed for land and maritime operations such as homeland security.

Hero is equipped with a interoperable Ground Control Station (GCS) with an advanced Human Machine Interface. The interface can be used to control and monitor single or multiple RUAV missions at the same time and allows sensor data transmitted from the RUAV to be monitored.

Simulating early design

Elsewhere, Dassault Systèmes’ rather quaintly named “Winning Program” software is designed for aerospace and defence companies looking to optimise early programme phases and programme development using design, simulation and collaboration.  Airbus Safran Launchers has confirmed its intention to use this for the design and development of Ariane 6, the European Space Agency’s next generation launcher. More than 700 engineers working on the development of Ariane 6 across multiple sites in Europe, including partners, are using Dassault Systèmes’ software for the systems architecture, the detailed design definition and the validation of propulsion units and the space vehicle. A digital mock-up is used to explore a greater number of alternatives and accelerate the selection of the most competitive configurations for Ariane 6, avoiding errors, minimising changes and reducing the development and industrial ramp-up times.

Metal 3D printing

Sciaky’s Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing (EBAM) system is set to help Airbus save significant time and cost on the production of large titanium structural parts.

EBAM combines computer-aided design (CAD), additive manufacturing processing and an electron beam heat source. Starting with a 3D model from a CAD program, a fully-articulated, moving electron beam gun deposits metal via wire feedstock, layer by layer, until the part reaches near-net shape. From there, the near-net shape part requires heat treatment and post-production machining. In the end, there is minimal material waste.

Sciaky brings quality and control together in one step with its Interlayer Real-time Imaging and Sensing System (IRISS), believed to be the only real-time monitoring and control system that can sense and digitally self-adjust metal deposition with precision and repeatability. This closed-loop control is the primary reason that EBAM delivers consistent part geometry, mechanical properties, microstructure, and metal chemistry.

EBAM can accommodate a wide variety of metals and refractory alloys, including titanium, tantalum, niobium, tungsten, Inconel, and stainless steels. Sciaky’s EBAM 110 System has a working envelope of 1778 x 1194 x 1600 mm.

Quality control of composite parts

Kongsberg Defence Systems, a Norwegian aerospace supplier of honeycomb structures and other composite components from Norway, has just installed the high-end X-ray inspection system XRHGantry from VisiConsult to perform compliant quality control on composite parts for Lockheed Martin to such quality standards as ASTM 2737, ASTM 2597, NADCAP, EN-17636, BSS7042.

This Gantry system is specifically designed for big aerostructures, like winglets, honeycombs and rudders, or complex structures like pipes welded out of titanium. This roof-mounted X-ray inspection system allows manufacturers to transition from analogue film to digital detectors.

A foldable inspection room is saving a lot of space in comparison to known X-ray protection bunkers. It also gives greater flexibility, as the whole system can be moved at any time. The XRHGantry itself can be modified in terms of dimension and layout depending on the inspection task, while common inspection processes are simply automated through CNC controlled sequences.

Andy Pye

Andy Pye

Andy Pye is a graduate of Cambridge University and has had a high profile career in the technical press as well as being a pioneer in web publishing.
Andy Pye

Latest posts by Andy Pye (see all)

About Andy Pye

Andy Pye is a graduate of Cambridge University and has had a high profile career in the technical press as well as being a pioneer in web publishing.

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