The UK government has committed £125 million ($160 million) in funding to develop autonomous aircraft, hybrid-electric, and electric propulsion and new models of airspace management, following on a commitment made by Prime Minister Theresa May at the Farnborough Air Show in July. The initiative, dubbed Future Flight Challenge, will initially focus on smaller aircraft and drones to ensure the suitability of the new technologies before developing them for larger passenger aircraft. It will also support research in new air mobility concepts and urban air services that would provide more options for moving people and goods and easing congestion.
“We want the UK to be at the cutting edge of these exciting developments much as we were when Sir Frank Whittle developed the world’s first jet engine,” UK business secretary Greg Clark said. “The UK’s contribution to the global aerospace industry cannot be underestimated. Half of the world’s modern large passenger aircraft have [Airbus] wings designed and built here in the UK; and every 2.5 seconds, a Rolls-Royce powered aircraft takes off or lands. But we are not complacent.”
The joint government-industry Future Flight Challenge—for which industry will match government funding, bringing it closer to £250 million—forms part of a comprehensive Aerospace Sector Deal to “position the UK at the forefront of valuable emerging markets” after it exits the EU, Clark said at the unveiling of the program on Thursday. “No deal put this all at risk,” he stressed, referring the prospect of a hard Brexit. The UK Parliament continues to debate the withdrawal agreement, which spells out an orderly divorce of the UK and the other 27 EU member countries, with a vote scheduled for December 11.
“[The Aerospace Sector Deal] demonstrates the UK’s commitment to continue as one of the most attractive locations for the global aerospace and aviation industries,” said Paul Everitt, chief executive of UK aerospace trade organization ADS Group. “A strong long-term partnership between government and industry is essential for UK aerospace to meet the challenges of global competition and new market opportunities.”
Other measures of the Aerospace Sector Deal include a commitment to attract more women into aviation, a supply chain productivity program that will receive £10 million in funding from each of industry and government, and a public-private investment for GKN Aerospace’s new Global Technology Center in Bristol.
Plans call for the center—funded by a £17 million investment from GKN Aerospace and a £15 million commitment from the UK government—to open in 2020 and act as a hub for innovative technology for the next generation of fuel-efficient aircraft. The center will focus on additive manufacturing, advanced composites, assembly, and “industry 4.0” processes to enable high-rate production of aircraft structures.