The Australian aerospace industry receives only a fraction of the government investment for research and development enjoyed by its European and US counterparts. Yet Australia can boast its fair share of aerospace technology innovation in diverse areas.

Among other things, Australia can lay claim to inventing the atomic absorption spectrophotometer in 1954, which is better known as the precursor to the black box flight recorder. The inflatable escape slide, invented in 1965, was also an Australian creation, as was the microwave landing system, developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in the 1970s. The visual approach slope indicator (VASI) lighting system which has been adopted by airports round the world also started life in Australia.

Australian aerospace developments are unlikely to stop there, with research and development alive and kicking at a number of specialised centres in the country, including the CSIRO, the Co-Operative Research Centre for Advanced Composite Structures (CRC-ACS) and at universities like the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

CSIRO is a diverse scientific global research organisation, with 6,500 personnel working at 60 sites throughout Australia and overseas. In 2001-2 the organisation received government funding of A$612 million ($455 million), A$511 million of which was invested directly in research and development across all sectors.

Although CSIRO does not have a dedicated aerospace unit, a number of its ongoing research programmes have direct aerospace applications. Among these are the ground-based infrared detection (G-BIRD) system, which is an airborne volcanic gas and ash detector. CSIRO has been working on the technology since the 1990s and is now working with Australian manufacturer Tenix to commercialise the product.

Undetected volcanic ash costs the airline industry A$250 million every year, with silicate particles from the ash damaging engines, instruments and windscreens. G-BIRD, which will be the size of a small telescope, will be installed at airports close to volcanoes to provide early warning and data about the nature and location of ash and sulphur dioxide clouds, says Dr Fred Prata, who is heading the research at CSIRO Atmospheric Research.

Intelligent helicopter

Meanwhile, CSIRO's Complex Systems Integration unit has developed an intelligent system for small, unmanned helicopters using low-cost microelectromechanical systems sensors. CSIRO has developed an intelligent, unmanned helicopter, dubbed Mantis, using the technology. Applications include tasks that are difficult or dangerous for manned aircraft, including low-level surveillance, search and rescue, fire monitoring, aerial mapping and building and structure inspection.

Innovation is also going on in the area of security, with the CSIRO having developed neutron scanning technology that is faster and more effective at detecting drugs, explosives and other contraband in air freight containers than existing x-ray machines. A prototype scanner has already been developed and tested and CSIRO recently won a contract from the Australian Customs Service to build a commercial system that will be installed at Brisbane airport in 2005.

"Smart spaces" development is also under way at CSIRO. An "intelligent" spacecraft tile that is capable of self-organising and responding to damage and failure is the first result of a project that team leader Dr Geoff James hopes could lead to the development of an aircraft or space vehicle capable of sensing a fault and repairing itself in flight.

One research organisation that has proved highly effective for the Australian aerospace industry is the CRC-ACS. The CRC concept was launched by former prime minister Bob Hawke in 1990, with the first organisations, including the CRC-ACS, formed a year later. There are now 71 CRCs operational in Australia, with the CRC-ACS only one of six now in its third term of operations, according to Professor Murray Scott, its chief executive.

Government funding

The organisation's latest A$65 million programme of work was approved in December, with A$15 million funding to come from the government through to 2010. "The intention of the CRC is to develop technologies to bring business to Australia," says Scott.

Over the course of its life, the CRC-ACS has spent A$83 million on R&D, of which $35 million has come from the government and the rest from industry and educational partners, which include the Composites Institute of Australia, CSIRO, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, GKN Aerospace Engineering Services, Hawker de Havilland, MCS Software Australia, Monash University, Pacific Composites, Pacific Engineering Systems, RMIT University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Sydney, International and Structural Monitoring Systems.

So far 61 technologies have been developed, says Scott, with aerospace accounting for 65% of the activity: maritime applications (25%) and general composite work (10%) make up the rest.

Technology developed that has directly benefited Australian industry includes semi-automated double diaphragm moulding that is used to make ribs and spars more quickly, says Scott. The technology went into commercial service in 2002 with Hawker de Havilland and is being used on the Boeing 777. "It has given Hawker de Havilland a significant competitive edge," says Scott.

Work programmes through to 2010 include smart materials, nano-composites, structural health monitoring and ways to reduce costs and lead time. Affordability is a key aspect of the organisation's work, with current programmes looking at affordable manufacture, assembly, structures design and product support.

The organisation is also working closely with research organisations overseas and is engaged in two European Union Sixth Framework R&D programmes - the TATEM structural health monitoring programme, led by Smiths, and the COCOMAT post-buckling design programme led by Germany's DLR.

A number of individual universities in the country also specialise in aerospace research and development, with the major one being Melbourne's RMIT. RMIT is the oldest and largest university involved in aerospace research, dating back to 1937, says Dr Arvind Kumar Sinha, director of the university's Sir Lawrence Wackett Centre for Aerospace Design Technology. The centre was established in 1991 as the focal point for industry interaction and collaboration and has become the university's hub for all aerospace and associated research, development and consultancy activities.

Key research areas include aerospace design and optimisation, composite materials for aerospace, testing, analysis and certification and crashworthiness investigations, with clients including Airbus, BAE Systems Australia, Boeing, Hawker de Havilland and Qantas.

Source: Flight International