Embraer's investments in Portugal may help invigorate the aerospace manufacturing sector, but there is no shortage of innovative engineering businesses determined to show what Portugal can offer the world of aviation away from the Brazilian airframer's supply chain.

Three projects recently or currently being developed by Portuguese companies are an airship, an unmanned air vehicle and a concept for a revolutionary business jet cabin. Working to tiny budgets that larger competitors would burn in a matter of days, all three are keen to prove that - despite its lack of an aerospace manufacturing tradition - Portugal has the potential to be taken seriously in European aeronautics.

The centrepiece of Portuguese trade association PEMAS's stand at the 2011 Paris air show was a business jet cabin concept, the result of a collaboration called LIFE - lighter, integrated, friendly and eco-efficient - designed to highlight the capabilities of a range of Portuguese companies, few of which were embedded in the aerospace industry. They included cork materials specialist Amorim; Couro Azul, a leather supplier to the transport industry; and design company Alma Design, whose experience had mostly been in creating interiors for coaches and railway carriages.

PEMAS LIFE business jet cabin


The centrepiece of Portuguese trade association PEMAS's stand at the 2011 Paris air show was the LIFE (lighter, integrated, friendly and eco-efficient) business jet cabin concept

The project kicked off in earnest in 2008 when Embraer was persuaded to become involved on a consultancy basis, says Alma Design partner Jose Marcelino. The Brazilian airframer - whose executives Marcelino had met at a transportation trade exhibition in 2004 - shipped over a composite cross-section for the consortium to work with.

The idea was to anticipate upcoming fashions in business jet cabin design by working with natural materials. "The concept is skin to skin," says Marcelino. "Everything you touch is either cork or leather." The mock-up also included some quirkier touches, including slimline seats and a ball-shaped "work module" where passengers can escape to work.

While there is little chance of the concept making it into a production aircraft any time soon, Marcelino says the project has helped present Portuguese industry "not as suppliers of different things but as a potential solution provider". Initiatives such as these also help companies "approach a problem not from a technology standpoint but by looking first at the user need".

Another Portuguese consortium - aided by another transatlantic partner, Lockheed Martin, as part of an offset commitment - is also behind X AeroSystems, a project to design and bring to market an unmanned air system (UAS) for the civilian market. The effort is headed by PEMAS and involves 13 partners. Two prototypes have been developed - a 35kg (77lb) maximum take-off version, SP-00, with a 3m (9.84ft) wingspan, and a 100kg version with 7m wingspan, SP-01.

The purpose, says PEMAS executive manager and project coordinator Sergio Oliveira, is to "provide national industry with a focal point for UAS solutions and system development". Both platforms have undergone initial flight testing and the grouping is now working on the development of on-board systems.

X AeroSystems UAV

 © X AeroSystems

A very different aviation project is under way in the north of Portugal, where Nortavia, a private company in Folgosa, near Porto, has spent five years developing an airship that it believes will be able offer cargo-carrying capabilities at a price competitive with road transport. A 6m-long, 1/10 scale prototype of the helium-filled dirigible - named after the Earth goddess Gaia - has been constructed, with help from local universities and European research funding. There are plans to have a 100m-long version in flight in about three years.

Nortavia has secured patents for the shape and structure of the airship, which uses a carbon fibre skeleton and a "special secret fabric for the envelope", says maintenance and engineering manager Hugo Palma. Powered by three vectoring propellers and a combination of solar cells (30%) and biofuels, the airship - the brainchild of company owner Cassiano Rodrigues - will be pitched for missions such as surveillance, mineral exploration and forestry. "It's great advantage is that, as an unmanned version, it will be able to stay in the air for up to two weeks and land and take off vertically in areas where no other aircraft can go such as forests and deserts," says Palma.

Nortavia is now seeking partners to help fund the €40 million ($52 million) it estimates it will need to bring the project to certification. "We are in contact with potential investors in the Middle East and the USA," he says. "We have several very interested."

Source: Flight International