A New Decade for Aerospace Testing

A New Decade for Aerospace Testing

By Mark Heaven, Director Global Aerospace PQT, Element Materials Technology

Mark Heaven, Director Global Aerospace PQT, Element Materials Technology

As we enter a new decade, providing expert testing services to the Aerospace industry remains an essential part of the manufacturing process. With air travel currently being the fastest growing transport sector, it is vital for the industry to keep at the forefront of innovation. To do this, the sector requires the best and most advanced support services that invest in new technology and keep pace with sector advancements.

Safety, of course, remains a vital part of the manufacturing and operations process, bringing to the fore the ability to test new technologies to standards for airworthiness, such as the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics’ (RTCA’s) DO160 standard for Environmental Conditions and Test Procedures for Airborne Equipment, alongside Military and Defence standards applicable to aircraft.

Standards

Approved and current standards often lag behind technological advances because of the time taken to develop them. This means testing businesses like Element must keep pace with our customers’ emerging technologies so we can ensure the test environment provides the best possible simulation of the real conditions in which the aircraft will operate. As that environment is constantly changing and developing, our level of customer engagement needs to be increasingly early in the process and at a high level. This enables us to work in partnership to design the test programs, build and commission test rigs, undertake tests and interpret results—all as ahead of the curve as possible.

Fuel Efficiency

Modern aircraft engines are increasingly designed for greater fuel efficiency, so they are running hotter and at higher pressures which, inevitably transfers different stresses to the airframe. Therefore, the test requirements for hotter, higher pressure and large G forces require increased investment to ensure that these test methods and facilities remain current.

"We believe that the best way to stay relevant to these testing needs is to maintain strong communication across all parts of the sector so that we can anticipate research and development"

Similarly, new concepts around blended or hybrid wing aircraft whilst offering greater fuel efficiency require different materials and engine technologies. When electric propulsion systems are further developed, different stresses on the aircraft will result and changes in materials used in the manufacture of the fuselage and engine casings will behave differently when tested. Tests such as impact and direct lightning strike require the development of new techniques to keep pace with the new materials so that the industry can be confident of their airworthiness. 

Passengers

The pace of change in terms of passenger wants and needs is evolving fast and we are always updating our test abilities to keep pace. For instance, as newer aircrafts are produced with electric power generators, testing has to include sophisticated drive stands which allow us to simulate the way that the aircraft drives them during flight, thereby keeping the test environment as realistic as possible. Simulating aircraft power distribution systems and loads should now be core to any expert testing service.

The need for wireless and wire-free communication in the passenger environment, driven by the increase in single devices with multiple functions, also requires a change to aircraft functionality. Modern aircraft have to continue to function normally as multiple portable electronic Devices (PED), which are mostly powered by lithium ion batteries, are being used during flight. Inevitably, these devices and their power sources meet appropriate safety standards for operation. However, while the manufacturer of the PED has tested the environmental, electromagnetic, wireless, and safety standards of the device for day-to-day use, this does not necessarily mean that they have been tested for use on aircraft. Therefore, airlines use test services to ensure that their aircraft configuration is PED tolerant—RTCA DO307/307a—Aircraft Design and Certification for Portable Electronic Device Tolerance sets out the requirements.

Just like its passengers, the aerospace sector is using wireless technology more and more, with wireless flight control systems driven in part by weight savings and fuel efficiency. As with the other developments, our industry must also invest in new technology, test rigs and techniques to simulate co-located wireless communications, in the same way that automobiles do today.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems

In addition to passenger and cargo aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) represent a growing market within both civil and defence applications. These aircraft are smaller, more agile, capable of carrying different payloads, and are either remotely controlled with on board visual systems or fully autonomous and capable of carrying out missions without human control. Safety of flight requires rigorous testing of both the aerial vehicle and the entire UAS communication systems that control them. A UAS defines a wide breadth of testing requirements including materials, electromagnetic compatibility, wireless technology and encrypted communication protocols.

Technological evolution in aerospace has for many years focused on: aerodynamics; increasingly lightweight materials and structures; new engine architecture; and modern aircraft systems. The drive for these changes has been the need to achieve fuel efficiency and meet hydrocarbon reduction targets. However, new technologies and concepts also play an increasing part in meeting longer-term goals in more efficient and environmentally focused air transport and, as with other developments, these technologies will require qualification and validation testing in simulated real-world environments. At Element, we are investing now to stay relevant and core to the aerospace manufacturing process through investing in knowledge, influence, capability, assets, technology, and facilities.

It may not always be clear what our industry will want to test in the future as innovation and advancement is constant, but it is clear it will continue testing to ensure its products are fit for purpose under defined environments and applications.

Along with my expert colleagues at Element, we believe that the best way to stay relevant to these testing needs is to maintain strong communication across all parts of the sector so that we can anticipate research and development. This will ensure we always work well with our customers, developing test strategies, techniques, and facilities to test their evolutionary and radical new technologies, keeping the sector at the forefront of innovation. 

Weekly Brief

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