A Small Step for Man… A Giant Leap for Technology

Posted by Jorge Almeida

When it comes to aerospace, space and defence, the evolution of technology isn’t always easy to see. Jorge Almeida, Principal Engineer, talks through some of the highlights of the technological evolution that’s taken place in these sectors since the 90s.

 


 

Over the last twenty years, technological evolution in aerospace, space and defence has moved much more slowly than other, more commercial sectors. One of the main reasons for this is that these are very conservative markets where rapid change is not always seen as an advantage. The main priority is that the systems work, not that they follow the latest trends.

Despite this, these traditional markets are improving their technology and some of these changes have an enormous impact on society.

Partly because of this, some of the changes are quite obvious. For example, it’s hard to miss the fact that the biggest commercial aircraft in the world – able to carry over 850 passengers each trip – has been flying for ten years.

In space, there have been advances in GNSS constellations – like the European ‘Galileo’ system and the Chinese ‘BeiDou Navigation Satellite System’ (BDS) – which have improved global navigation and allow more accurate positioning. Not to mention that we’re close to witnessing a human mission to Mars!

Even the reserved defence sector has been buzzing with behind-the-scenes changes. At CRITICAL, we’ve seen in first-hand the evolution of programmes associated with cyber-security and new defence strategies coming into play, like the use of unmanned vehicles for missions.

Interestingly, while new tech is spreading through these markets, the major functionalities of many systems remain more or less the same. The key area of evolution centres around increasing efficiency.

 

Aerospace – Improving Efficiency

A major concern in the aerospace sector is reducing consumption and pollution caused by commercial aircraft. Manufacturers of jet engines have been under huge pressure to be more efficient for a while, with airlines desiring lower fuel consumption and less total weight.

Zero-emission electric-powered planes have already been tested and an enormous effort is being made to reduce weight: miniaturised components are being manufactured and some mechanical parts are being swapped for light weight replacements. This includes things like the ‘fly-by-wire’ system that aircraft used to rely on.

In addition, better design is playing a role in creating more aerodynamic structures that reduce the overall drag of the plane – winglets, for example.

One change in the aerospace sector that doesn’t feel like progress is that we lost the capability to fly above the speed of sound in a commercial airliner: we lost Concorde. This technological back step will hopefully evolve into something greater though, so let’s see what the future will bring!

 

Space – New Frontiers

The world recently saw the impressive images provided by the Galileo and James Weber space telescopes, illustrating what our universe really looks like.

It’s expected that in the next few years, we’ll launch the first human mission to Mars, which is something scientists once only dreamed of. And of course, there’s growing expectation around several private companies who are endeavouring to make ‘space tourism’ a reality.

For our part, CRITICAL has been assisting with several programmes associated with earth observation and climate change. This isn’t limited to our planet though; we contributed towards the development of the EXOMARS Trace Gas Orbiter, one of the most accurate monitoring satellites built to study the Martian atmosphere, to help scientists prepare for future human missions.

We’ve been working on improving adaptive optics to very precise levels by enhancing on-ground telescopes to achieve higher image quality too. We’re also participating in the build of the biggest machine on earth, a radio telescope spread across several continents, which is very exciting.

 

Defence – Different Concerns

With the fall of the Berlin Wall back in 1989, a huge cut was made to defence budgets around the world which put the brakes on evolution in this sector.

Now though, we are seeing renewed concern of geopolitical instability and so defence budgets are being increased. Accordingly, we can expect to see a tech evolution in this area shortly, as countries improve their geopolitical position with new defence assets.

We are also seeing a large number of unmanned vehicles being deployed in the battlefield (in particular UAVs) which is reshaping the way this domain operates.

Another important breakthrough is that the ‘network-centric’ warfare concept has been rolled out. This expands our capability to communicate in real time with high quality of service, which offers the advantage of information superiority in the battlefield.

Finally, a new field of cyber-warfare tech has been evolving too. This is no surprise really as preparing for cyber-attacks is one of the main concerns for traditional military institutions. Several countries now consider it a fourth branch of their armed forces: land, sea, air and cyber.

 

Through our work, CRITICAL Software has been lucky enough to play a role in the technological evolution that has taken place within these sectors. Many of the projects we’ve been a part of can be seen as milestones of our twenty year history. They’ve helped us to grow into the company we are today.

Over the next twenty years, I expect to see a quantum leap forwards when it comes to tech and hope that CRITICAL will continue to bolster this evolution on a global scale.