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A battle of acronyms linked to developing technologies will be taking place in skies above Hampshire this week as the Farnborough International Airshow gets under way. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), AR (augmented reality) and ALM (additive layer manufacturing, or 3D printing) are three of the many technologies on display at the biennial aeronautical show.

The word that links these innovations is not “aerodynamics” but “digital”: UAVs rely on satellite and ground station data for navigation; AR is the realm of superimposing digital data on to visors to add contextually relevant information that helps people to handle complex tasks; and 3D printing translates digitised information into products that are built up layer by layer.

Developments in technology have also led to a change in the type of talent the aerospace industry is looking for. John Schmidt, who leads consultant Accenture’s global aerospace and defence practice, says that “70 per cent of executives believe that the employee of the future has to be more adept at adopting new technologies”. What do these three innovations bring?

Augmented Reality

AR has been around since 1990, pioneered by a Boeing researcher who used a head-mounted display to see computer-generated assembly instructions while installing wire harnesses on aircraft wings. But it has only been with the more recent advent of high-definition smart glasses that the technology is really catching on. “AR is being selectively introduced to support the rapid diagnosis of systems and objects in need of service, and to reduce risk of errors in unfamiliar procedures,” says Christine Perey, founder of the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance.

The rising demand for digital technologies in the aerospace sector has also coincided with skill shortages. But Chris Freeman, head of digitally assisted assembly at the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, says AR can improve rather than merely replace work on the production line.

One such AR application is designed to check structural brackets that hold wiring, pipework and hydraulics while also flagging up damaged and wrongly positioned brackets, “reducing inspection time for the 60,000-80,000 brackets in the [Airbus] A380 fuselage from three weeks to just three days”, Mr Freeman says.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Accenture’s Mr Schmidt has calculated that “the commercial UAV market is expected to reach $2.8bn [by annual sales] by 2020 — growing by 14.1 per cent year-on-year — and the defence market is expected to amount to $6.6bn”.

The UK government sees drones as an essential platform for the nation’s future military needs. It has invested £185m in Taranis, an advanced unmanned combat demonstrator aircraft designed and built by BAE Systems in collaboration with Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation, and Qinetiq, alongside the Ministry of Defence.

Taranis is being designed to test technologies that could be used to further develop drones capable of carrying out attacks as well as surveillance. Martin Rowe-Willcocks, head of future programmes and services at BAE, describes Taranis as “the most advanced air system ever conceived, designed and built in the UK, with the capability to work alone, under the continuous command of a pilot, or in co-operation with manned combat aircraft”.

Additive Layer Manufacturing

Another technology we are likely to see across the industry is additive layer manufacturing, the industrial-strength version of 3D printing. And it is not just used for minor components — Rolls-Royce has already flown the world’s largest 3D-printed structure, consisting of aerofoils, in its Trent XWB-97 engine.

ALM has developed into an economic manufacturing platform which enables designers to leapfrog tooling processes and jump straight from design to finished product. The savings in cost, time and waste-reducing environmental benefits make it an attractive manufacturing option for the aerospace industry. Airbus says ALM produces “only 5 per cent waste material instead of up to 95 per cent from machining”.

Scott Sevcik, director for aerospace and defence business development at 3D printing company Stratasys, says that in addition to enabling the aerospace industry to make lightweight components more efficiently, the potential of print on demand allows for new supply chain savings. “Imagine eliminating the tens of billions of dollars in inventory sitting idly on shelves around the world. When you can print a part, those tools and parts can be stocked digitally and produced on demand. Stocking 20 years’ of spares for a part going out of production will become a thing of the past.”

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