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Interview of Prof. Dieter Schmitt

Prof. Dieter Schmitt reviews and evaluates the up to date achievements of Aeronautics-related research in Europe and accordingly appraises the prospects of research and innovation for the future.

1st Question: You have been heavily involved in formulating the Strategic Research Agenda (SRA) for European Aeronautics and the Vision for the year 2020. For achieving the strategic goals set in SRA an appreciable amount of research has been carried out funded in the frame of subsequent Framework Programmes of the European Commission. How close are we now to achieving the goals set with the Strategic Research Agenda? Are you satisfied with the results achieved so far?

The setup of ACARE in 1990 was a major common achievement between the aeronautical industry, the research centers, the academia and the political partners. It shows that common European strategies in different industrial sectors can be achieved in Europe. May be that the aeronautical industry is a very special sector with also some advantage, that there is already a major international European player like Airbus, who is seen by the industry, the politics but also by the people in Europe as a real European company. Once the ACARE Vision 2020 was established, it needed a Strategic Research Agenda to define the necessary technologies and accompanying measures, which were needed to pave the way towards achieving the goals of ACARE 2020.
It is obvious that the target has always to be slightly higher than what can be achieved with normal small enhancement steps. The air transport sector is still one of those rare industries with a yearly increase in traffic growth of 4 to 5 % and this is now consistent till more than 40 years. So the aeronautical sector has the advantage, that due to this positive economic perspective, the political side is ready to support. The target to reduce the CO2 emissions from the flying aircrafts by 50% was very ambitious, surely overoptimistic, but there were 3 sectors, who were supposed to contribute. The airframe side should bring 20% improvement, the engine development should bring 20% and the air traffic management should also contribute with 10%.
If we take the example of the A320neo, which will be on the market in 2016, the A320neo will have a 16% fuel improvement compared to the classic A320. The improvement will come partly from the airframe side (about 4 % for the integration of the new sharklets) and 12% for the new engines. The geared turbofan is in this context a technology, which also has been supported by the EC FP6/7 programs. As the airframe technology has not really changed for the A320neo and only little technology improvement is introduced with the sharklets, we can conclude that about 1/2 of the ACARE 2020 goals will be met up to 2020.
SESAR the European Single Sky should also contribute to the targets, but what we can hear is that the national egoisms in Europe in combinations with national Unions will not help to achieve a major breakthrough in this area. European airlines are still paying nearly the double for air traffic fees compared to the US, where the "single American sky" has been established since 50 years. Up to now, there is no improvement from SESAR to be quoted!

2nd Question: Horizon 2020 clearly represents a step-change concerning the focus of Aeronautics related research. Explicitly, throughout the previous Framework Programmes, aeronautics research was targeting objectives of lower Technological Readiness Levels (TRLs), whereas in Horizon 2020, it seems to rather focus on integration and demonstration of technologies and concepts and hence to higher Technological Readiness Levels. How would you judge this step-change? What is the role of academia in this context?

The new European Framework Program for Research (It is not named FP8 but they called it Horizon 2020) has a different structure. The instrument of the JTI (Joint Technology Initiative), which has been started with the Joint Undertaking "Clean Sky" is the major instrument to support aeronautical research. Industry and European Politicians have developed this instrument as PPP (Private-Public - Partnership) and are using this instrument as major vehicle for the aeronautical research.  The advantage for the European Commission is the fact, that the JU is an own organization which is paid from the JU budget (industry and EC) and the EC has less own staff for the organization of the Research activities.
In a "Supportive Action" called CREATE, which was executed between 2010 and 2012, there was a clear recommendation from the scientists to the EU politicians to introduce in the next FP program also projects, which were called "level 0 - projects". The idea behind was to have smaller research projects with only 2-4 partners and a budget of 1 - 2 M Euros maximum. The report was highly appreciated, but politics decided differently. The reasoning is outlined before! The small research programs require more activities from the EC project officers and therefore more personal in the EC is required to execute these "level -0 projects". We are missing these instruments for smaller projects in the aeronautical area.
Here the industry has succeeded to push for their interests which are the level-2 projects or now the very big Clean Sky 2 platforms.
The only chance for academia is the possibility to participate in the Call for proposal (CfP) process, but this is only feasible if they team up with other academic partners and some SME's to be successful.
Basic research is no longer in the aeronautical part. This is a pity!!

3rd question: Despite of the necessity to foster the exploitation of innovative technologies by the European aircraft industry so as to increase its short and medium term competitiveness, the development of new knowledge, innovation and breakthrough technologies is indispensable to ensure the long term competitiveness of Europe. The role of academia in order to respond to this latter need is determinant. Where do you see the paths in the frame of Horizon 2020 to ensure this type of research?

This is a difficult question:
One path we can see from the industry side is, to reduce risk and further improve the production technologies to reduce the cost aspects. The big players, Airbus and Boeing, are now at equal level (50% market share each) and the competition between them will no longer be to develop new and better products. The main interest is to sell the existing products and to try to further improve the internal cost structure and earn a lot of money. This is a little simplified, but the intention from industry follows this line. The technological level is today very high and the risks involved with new technologies like the Li batteries for the B787 has shown the problem of a ban for an aircraft to stay on ground, if the aircraft manufacturer cannot show or develop a solution for a short-term fix of the technical problem. With the fairly high production rates for the aircraft manufacturers, there is a very big risk to bring to the market, technologies which are not really mature for a strong in-service operation in the airline environment.
Innovation has to come from new companies who are ready to enter the market (Russia, China, Brazil and Canada). The only country with the necessary policy, aeronautical strategy and financial power will be China, at least in my view!
Aircraft design and building own aircraft models have always been and will continue to be a major factor for young person to study aeronautics. The Universities should continue to offer these services to recruit students for the technical domains. Aircraft design has still a very high fascination for young people. It is also clear and proven by statistics, that most of the aeronautical students, once they have finished their studies are not employed in the aeronautical sector but in automotive, transport, or even business consulting companies.
Horizon 2020 has only very little money and possibilities for these fundamental small research subjects.
My recommendation is: Try to look at research programs at national level. Germany, Italy, Austria, and other countries have major national aeronautical research programs and there is the chance for Academic partners to apply in close cooperation with SMEs. The main future cooperation is anyway better between SME and academia as support from the big industry to academia seems not so obvious today.

4th Question: To maintain global leadership in Aeronautics, Europe needs a clear strategy and the respective mechanisms and tools in order to realize this strategy. In your opinion, does Europe have a clear and realistic strategy as well as the right tools for that? Based on your experience, what would you recommend? What would you change?

The industrial priorities are well established in the European Aeronautical Research Agenda. The Clean Sky 2 program shows the strategy of the EU to concentrate on the industrial leadership in the large passenger aircraft domain. The problem today is that our industrial leaders in Europe are less interested in additional technological innovations but more in the financial engineering to keep their industrial leadership. Innovation is not seen as the instrument to support this financial leadership, it is more the cost aspects which are the drivers in the industrial strategy from today.  On the other hand, there are also no really promising technologies on the horizon which could bring the next major breakthrough in technology besides the further development of new very high-by-pass engines (UHBPR).  So the air transport is becoming a more common transport sector like the railway and autobus sector, where a lot of standardization will reduce the innovative developments. Production cost is the innovative driver.
Important is that we keep the aeronautics still as a very interesting subject for the young generation of engineers! The Aircraft Design Education has to concentrate on affordable elements which allow showing the multidisciplinary aspects of aircraft design like flight simulators, UAVs of small sizes (2 - 6 m span), sailplanes, ULM and other vehicles. This is the carrot to tear the attraction to the engineering area. But the future will also be for smaller vehicles, where new Hybrid ?concepts (electrical and thermal motors) will come into service.  The small aircraft size (20 - 90 seats vehicles) will be the aircraft size, where the next innovation steps may be introduced and where the more electrical/hybrid aircraft concept will be tested before the big aircraft will introduce parts of them.

It is hard to say and I feel a little bit sad to say, the aeronautical industry today seems to be in a situation to lose the momentum for innovation. The 2 big players do not want to endanger their big cash machines (A320 and B737 families) with the very high production rates. Progress will only be introduced with small and cost efficient improvements; radical concepts will have little to no chance!

Date posted: December 8, 2014, 9:20 am

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