The Andalusian aeronautical industry is characterized by its commitment to technological development and research into new cutting-edge applications, in a bid to establish itself at the forefront of international fields with the greatest future market potential. Experiments in the field of UAvs by the University of Seville and CATEC, new structural testing techniques designed by companies such as TEAMS and improvements to carbon fiber composite manufacturing at the plants of Airbus Military are just a few examples of Andalusia’s technological potential and the likely challenges in the coming years
The location of the FAL for the A400M in Seville and the notable growth of the Andalusian aerospace sector in recent years due to its participation in major international programs such as the A380 and A350 are some of the fundamental reasons why Andalusia is today considered to be the third aeronautical hub in Europe after Toulouse and Hamburg, although these are not by any means the only reasons. The Andalusian industry is characterized by its commitment to technological development and research into new cutting-edge applications which have established it at the forefront of the European and international industry, positioning itself successfully to increase competitiveness and opt for new business opportunities on the world market.
The Andalusian aeronautical cluster is focusing its efforts on one of the technological areas with the greatest medium-term potential in the aerospace industry: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Important initiatives have been started up which seek to convert Andalusia into one of the leaders for the creation of new technologies for these aircraft, which are already used by the military but have major commercial possibilities for civil aviation. Apart from this, Andalusia is already a center of excellence for other leading research and technology fields in the international aeronautical sector, such as improvements to carbon fiber composite manufacturing processes and development of new structural testing techniques, a new area which is rapidly earning widespread recognition.
A major commitment to UAVs
Andalusia has taken a major step in the development of new applications for unmanned aircraft systems with the start-up of a pioneering initiative for both Spain and Europe by the Andalusian Foundation for Aerospace Development through the Center for Advanced Aerospace Technology (FADA-CATEC): the ATLAS Experimental Flight Center. This is the first center of its kind in Spain and the third on the European continent, offering the international aeronautical community an aerodrome equipped with top-class facilities and a restricted airspace which is ideally suited for test flights with unmanned aircraft systems. The center will be located in the district of Villacarrillo (Jaén), a strategic location due to the fact that its airspace has the ideal location, climate and terrain for UAV testing. The facilities will include a main runway with a length of 800 meters and a width of 18 meters, a control room to monitor missions, various independent hangars with offices and workshops and other areas for logistics-technical support. In addition, ATLAS will have a restricted airspace with an area of 35 km x 30 km and a maximum altitude of up to 5,000 feet. The main activities to be carried out at this experimental flight center will consist of studies to improve the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles and test their effectiveness in the air. The aim is to provide UAV manufacturers and operators, regulatory authorities, official bodies, universities and technology centers with a single location for R&D activities in this field.
Construction of the center is about to begin and it is expected to be functioning by mid-2012. The ATLAS Experimental Flight Center not only enables a significant advance in the quality of unmanned aircraft, it is also the culmination of major scientific research efforts in this field by Andalusia in recent years, through academic institutions such as the Higher School of Engineering of the University of Seville and the Andalusian Association for Research and Industrial Cooperation (AICIA). At the helm of different national and international R&D projects involving UAVs they have more than demonstrated the technological capabilities of the Andalusian industry.
Examples include the European AWARE and PLAnET projects corresponding to the 6th and 7th EU Framework Programs, with a major role being assumed by Professor Aníbal Ollero of the University of Seville, scientific director of CATEC and one of the most renowned experts in Spain and Europe in the field of unmanned aircraft systems. The AWARE project headed by Aníbal Ollero’s team has developed new technologies for the integration of UAVs with land-based wireless sensor networks, enabling deployment of multiple autonomous helicopters for different applications such as recording of measurements in places with difficult access, automatic surveillance of persons and vehicles, fire detection and extinction, inspection of buildings and industrial facilities and cinematographic applications, among others. PLAnET is another project currently in progress which seeks to complement the results obtained by AWARE through the use of unmanned aircraft in experiments to monitor flora and fauna at the Doñana Biological Station, along with automation of airport operations and air traffic management strategies in the event of possible emergencies such as the loss of communications between aircraft and the control tower. In addition to all of the above, CATEC has among its main strategic lines the development of UAV projects through initiatives such as MOnIF and SEILAF, which research new technologies and procedures to improve the efficiency of wildfire management.
These and other important projects headed by Professor Ollero’s research team have led to their recent participation at the International Conference on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (ICUAS) held in Denver, USA late last May. The Andalusian scientists were the only Spanish delegation at this prestigious event attended by all the leading world UAV experts and professionals, during which they presented the technological applications developed in recent years. All this intense research activity in the field of UAVs is transferred to industry through Andalusian companies such as Elimco, which specializes in the design, development, integration and manufacture of these types of aircraft. It has carried out various projects to increase the technological capabilities of Micro, Mini and Tactical UAVs, with highlights being its Scan, Viewer and X-Vision models. The company has developed completely new systems equipped with the latest autonomous navigation and on-board sensor technology, including the aircraft itself, ground stations and the software necessary for its functioning. These units include automatic pilots with satellite navigation, Inertial Measurement Units (IMU), complete portable ground control stations, visible and infrared imaging, long-range radio links and automatic antenna monitoring systems.
Elimco is also collaborating in Latin American countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Colombia on programs for technological development and knowledge transfer in this field. As a result it is becoming one of the most active Spanish companies in the UAV sector, leading the way for other Andalusian companies which are becoming increasingly aware of the major business potential of new technologies for unmanned aircraft systems. Through all these initiatives Andalusia has now definitively established its status as the leader of the UAV race and the ideal location for the EADS Unmanned Aircraft Center of Excellence, which the European company has confirmed will be based at the El Arenosillo Experimentation Center of the national Institute of Aerospace Technology (InTA) in Huelva. These new facilities will be managed by a consortium consisting of the Andalusian Regional Government through the Andalusian Agency for Innovation and Development (IDEA), FADA and the Ministry of Defense through InTA. Its main customer will be CASSIDIAn, the defense and security branch of EADS. The Center, to be known as CEUS (Center of Excellence on Unmanned Air Systems), will enable all kinds of tests and experiments for an extensive range of aerospace systems, providing the sector with an extraordinary technological development tool and stimulating the creation of technological companies and activities with high added value.
Testing of carbon fiber panels
Andalusia has distinguished itself in recent decades as a leader for the manufacture of carbon fiber parts and it continues to work on technologies to improve aeronautical materials. Apart from the activity carried out by the Airbus Military plant at El Puerto de Santa María (Cádiz) and Alestis Aerospace in Seville (formerly Sacesa) specializing in carbon fiber products for aircraft such as the A380 and A400M, another Andalusian firm assuming an important role in this field is TEAMS. This recently established Andalusian company is developing new techniques and tools for testing of curved carbon fiber panels, along with a virtual system for remote quality control of aeronautical materials.
This system uses real-time video conference technologies and graphic displays to visualize and access test data without the need to be present at the test location, resulting in important cost savings in terms of engineering and travel time and increasing the options not only of manufacturers looking to purchase materials but also the companies responsible for testing by enabling them to offer their services to a much larger market. These are the first compression tests carried out on curved carbon fiber panels in Spain, and only the second in Europe.
This places TEAMS in a privileged position for structural testing and establishes the Andalusian sector at the forefront of these technological advances. TEAMS is also responsible for another equally interesting project to evaluate the viability of improving the structure of the belly fairing for commercial airliners by substituting metal components with composite materials (carbon fiber). This will result in cost and weight reductions and will also enable the company manufacturing the carbon fiber panels to also manufacture the support structure. The aim of this new technology, also developed by TEAMS, is to improve the design of these types of structures for programs such as the A350.
The results of the project may also be incorporated by Airbus into its design recommendations. TEAMS was recently named a Tier One supplier for Materials and Processes by Airbus, making it the only Spanish laboratory with this distinction and only the fourth at an international level. In addition, Alestis has awarded TEAMS the complete testing program for the materials, components and systems of the belly fairing and tail cone of the A350. Equally noteworthy is the work carried out by other Andalusian firms such as Sofitec to increase technological capabilities in the field of composites and carbon fiber, which has led to its consolidation as a leader for the development of comprehensive aerostructure products for major manufacturers.
This company is currently in the process of expansion and incorporation of new technologies for its facilities located at Aeropolis, which includes a new plant for the manufacture of composite parts measuring up to 12 m in length. Another recent development is the acquisition of a new turning center for its machined products. The only machinery of its kind in Spain due to its dimensions, it enables the manufacture of parts with a diameter of up to 2 m and a height of up to 1.4 m. The company has also expanded its sheet metal line with a thermal treatment plant and is developing a new thermoplastics manufacturing line for non-structural parts used in aircraft interiors.
Airbus Military projects
Airbus Military is also promoting other projects to improve parts and structures made of carbon fiber composites. The DAICA initiative consists of the manufacture of a multi-spar wing made of next-generation carbon fiber to be used on the medium-sized airliners the company plans to develop in the coming years. The aim is to develop a carbon fiber multi-spar wing box which is lighter and more efficient, maintaining its function as a fuel tank and improving its electromagnetic shielding properties and protection against lightning strikes.
The development of this project in Andalusia involves the use of different technologies such as ATL (Automated Tape Laying), which enables prepreg lamination, cutting and compaction operations with a single layer. This provides increased productivity and precision in comparison to its competitors and the possibility of making larger parts, as well as eliminating foreign objects during the lamination phase, thereby reducing the need for repairs. Airbus Military is a leader in Europe for the manufacture of ATL structures.
This initiative revolutionizes traditional metal construction concepts (based on spars combined with evenly spaced stringers and ribs) by employing a multi-spar concept without stringers or ribs based on a layered structure developed in a single curing cycle. This improves the integration of the main structural elements, as well as including lightning protection for both the structure and the systems. The DAICA Project forms part of another larger initiative known as ITACA, the aim of which is to convert Airbus Military’s Bahía de Cádiz Center, and by extension the Andalusian aeronautical industry, into a center of excellence for carbon fiber in the field of AFP (Automated Fiber Placement). The European manufacturer is also developing a new system with lighter composite materials to protect aircraft and passengers from the impact of ice, stones, turbine or engine shards, birds or landings on unprepared surfaces.
The intention is to integrate the manufacture of the protected parts from the outset of the manufacturing process, applying these techniques to land-based vehicles as well. Known as DEPLA, the ultimate aim of the project is to achieve a technological solution to improve aircraft protection from the risks indicated above, but without compromising the aircraft's performance or increasing costs. The project involves participation by three research groups from the Universities of Cádiz, Jaén, Córdoba and Seville and the companies IDEC and Ghenova. The new product will consist of an improved aerostructure capable of providing suitable protection from possible impacts, ranging from those with less intensity (bird impacts) through to those with greater risk (ballistic impact) and including aerial waves (seismic waves, heat radiation, crater formation), abrasion and erosion.
The project’s most striking technological innovations include the characterization of advanced light protective materials, techniques for the manufacture of complex elements, simulation and characterization of their performance in the event of high and low energy impacts and their assembly in aerostructures. The results of the project may be applied as impact protection for new civil and military aircraft of all sizes and ranges. In addition, it may also be used on aircraft currently in service to substitute ceramic protection and non-aerial vehicles in both civil and military spheres, such as police and patrol cars, armored cars and high speed trains.
New technologies for the future
The start-up of the Center for Advanced Aerospace Technologies (CATEC) is another key commitment by Andalusia to research and development of new technologies for future use in the international industry. Apart from experiments in the field of UAVs, this center will focus its efforts on other areas such as materials, automation, robotics, simulation and software, developing techniques and processes of major interest to the sector and potential transfer to Andalusian firms associated with the aeronautical industry.
Its tasks will include applied research and development of new aerostructure manufacturing processes; ultrasound inspections for carbon fiber and fiberglass materials; infrared thermography and laser shearography techniques for the detection of anomalies in composites and metallic parts; and prototyping machines with laser sintering and rapid manufacturing technology for the manufacture of metal parts and polymeric materials (resins). Another highlight is the latest technology for creation of parts directly using 3-D CAD and Selective Laser Sintering techniques, which which is becoming increasingly popular in various industries and is particularly useful for small product batches as it obviates the need for investment in tools with a fixed manufacturing cost.
CATEC also has other interesting technological capabilities and cutting-edge equipment such as the 4 Meganewton dynamic structural testing machine, one of four with this capacity in Spain; a “HALT-HASS” chamber for highly accelerated life testing of aeronautical components and materials; and another climatic chamber which enables regulation of the pressure, temperature and humidity of the parts tested. Its facilities also include robot arms, multi-robot systems and other technical features which together make it a key test facility for the aeronautical sector and other technological fields.
A further highlight is the test bed for unmanned aerial and groundbased systems. This unique enclosed space measuring 18 m x 18 m x 7 m equipped with 20 infrared cameras is the only one of its kind in Europe and is used to test autonomous coordination of vehicles and monitoring of movements. The Center also has a 3-D virtual reality room with a 130° curved surround screen, an ultrasound localization system and sensorequipped helmets and gloves, enabling the creation of interfaces which immerse the user in the simulation scenario. Haptic devices are also used to simulate movements, along with a surface device to facilitate interaction by the user with the computer and the creation of scenarios with different terrains and surfaces.