The reality – augmented or otherwise – is we really are hitting the new generation of innovation, writes Alan Peaford.

The whole aerospace industry has suddenly gone crazy about digital. Aerospace 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution, is well and truly with us and picking up faithful followers as they see the light.

There is no marching upon palaces and parliament to fight against the changes as there might have been in previous industrial upheavals, but increasingly we see support for innovators and out-of-the-box thinkers as they move us to a more efficient, effective and environmentally friendly future.

Spending a week at the Paris Air Show last month was telling. From the smallest SME to the largest of the multinational OEMs, the talk was about innovation, new digital technology, new materials, augmented reality, blockchain and disruption.

Small businesses that are usually tucked in the dark corners where they could mumble about software and materials were suddenly in the spotlight.

Aerospace has always had a reputation for innovation, or at least a scientific and technology magic. In just over half a century we went from crazy people throwing themselves off high cliffs with balsa wood  and canvas wings strapped to their bodies, through to landing on the Moon and flying at supersonic speeds across the Atlantic. But since then?

Since the development of the jet engine and the refinement of aluminium there have not been the big revolutionary changes that we saw in the first half of the last century.

To be fair to the avionics manufacturers the digital changes that gave us glass cockpits and the development of fly-by-wire opened the way for the digital revolution we are seeing today, but generally there hadn’t been major moves from where we had been decades before.

As an industry we complained that we were not getting the talent that we always had. “We are losing young people to the video game makers” was a complaint I heard regularly from senior executives bemoaning the human capital challenges. “We are not exciting any more.”

That is changing.

Boeing recently announced a $32 million funding injection through its HorizonX innovation incubation fund into SparkCognition, an artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning company based in Texas. Other HorizonX investments include Upskill, an enterprise software company specializing in augmented reality wearables for manufacturing, and Zunum Aero, a company looking to develop an alternative propulsion aircraft. Its technology can harness real-time sensor data and continuously learn from it.

This continued learning and the rapidly improving and expanding technologies such as cloud computing, mobile computing and social media foster access to data and related intelligence at any place and any time around the world, allowing aerospace to take real advantage of big data.

Robotics and additive layer manufacturing are further technologies with great potential to create new ways of working and allowing new business models to grow.

Changing our world

Digital transformation not only impacts the way a business is established and managed, it also influences the daily life of human beings by enhancing the flexibility of work and communication across company boundaries. Innovations such as sensors embedded into aircraft equipment, parts and systems have increased our ability to collect valuable data.

At Airbus, electrification is the future. The Airbus E-Fan technology is being considered for single-passenger, self-flying air taxis, four-seat general aviation aircraft, and 19-seat  business aircraft.

At Paris we saw real, viable flying cars, new supersonic passenger jets; 3D printed parts on demand, whole connected aircraft from top to tail and numerous concepts for autonomous air taxis and the like.

The regulatory minefield

But the biggest challenges lie with the regulators.  The bright young minds that embrace the concept of the internet of things; that see opportunity by disrupting existing transportation; that develop new materials, they are finding aerospace interesting again. We have the modern equivalent of those men and women who 120 years ago who would climb into a canvas and wood contraption and fly blindly into new horizons, risking their lives and their fortunes.

Certification of an aircraft is a minefield and a very expensive one at that. Developing an STC just to install a coffee cup holder in a 40-year-old light GA aircraft is costly and time-consuming.  Great ideas have been thwarted when funds evaporate as innovators sink in a pit of red tape.

It must not get in the way of the success of this revolution nor of the revolutionaries that risk all. It must encourage them to lead these ideas to fly.