AFTER YEARS of failing to win new Government funding for civil research-and-technology programmes, the UK's aerospace companies have taken matters into their own hands and launched a programme of industry-funded technology-demonstrator pilots.
They hope that the UK Government will now help build the project into a £200 million ($300 million) programme by the turn of the century. The underlying aim is to repair the industry's presence in world markets, says the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC), the trade association coordinating the project.
Three pilot schemes are already under way, bringing together companies from throughout the industry to work on technologies seen as key to the survival of the UK's aerospace manufacturing base, says Tony Edwards, chairman of Messier-Dowty, who heads the initiative within the SBAC.
The first focuses on "the powered wing", in which a model next-generation wing will be built, complete with engines and landing gear. Although there are no specific civil or military projects in mind, one clear aim is to calm BAe's anxieties over German threats to its Airbus wing work. BAe hints that the pilot could assist towards a bid on the proposed A3XX.
A second project, on the "flight crew environment", will bring together UK avionics companies such as GEC, Smiths and Lucas.
A third, "ultra-reliable-aircraft", project is aimed at modeling the factors, from raw materials up, which are driving the reliability of modern aircraft.
Other projects are due to follow, in areas such as helicopter design, if and when the Government is persuaded to join with the funding.
The companies themselves have pulled together around £30 million from their own budgets for this year. They are aiming to build their contribution to around £100 million, with the Government providing a similar amount.
So far, the Government has remained immune to pleas for such extra spending, but the SBAC hopes that its case is at last gaining ground. "We're looking for a positive response before the end of this year," says Edwards. What happens if there is no extra cash is unclear.
The battle for civil research-and-technology spending began in 1992, when the Government's own aerospace committee produced a controversial National Strategic Technology Acquisition Plan, calling for urgent investment in key future technologies.
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) gave support in principle, but with no cash to back it up. The SBAC has had to fight a tough campaign to keep the £20 million a year it was already receiving for civil research.
The UK Ministry of Defence, meanwhile, with its sizeable £2.2 billion research budget, has begun to work more closely with the DTI on taking responsibility for preserving the UK's industrial base.
The best hope of future funding seems to come from re-allocation of funds within existing UK spending on general research. Edwards, points out that the current budget, including the MoD share, is set at £6 billion. The SBAC admits, however, that the lack of a central Government co-ordinator has made getting hold of the money difficult, despite the positive support shown for increasing civil aerospace's share of this outlay.
Source: Flight International