Garnet Ridgway: Ask any aerospace testing professional whether technology has made their lives easier, and at best you’ll receive a wry smile. The simple fact is that, yes, testing technology has advanced, but expectations from customers and users have risen at least as quickly.
Although it’s true that many aircraft types currently undergoing testing were in service before the widespread use of personal computers, it would be a gross oversimplification to say that they are unchanged. Yes, a new Boeing 747 may look like the same aircraft that rolled off the production line in the 1960s, but beneath the surface it’s a totally different beast. It’s also often the case that the newest features (avionics, software and human-machine interface modifications) are the most difficult to assess, and the availability of raw computing power is not always useful for their evaluation. The age-old problem of turning data into information requires the same depth of expertise that it always has, and remains a big and costly challenge in the aerospace testing community.
It should also be considered that, just because exciting new technology such as touchscreen tablets and miniature HD cameras is available in the stores, it may not be immediately available for use in aerospace testing. Challenges such as airworthiness assessments, equipment qualification and licensing issues often make it prohibitively expensive to introduce new equipment, particularly if the main justification is ‘just’ to make someone’s job easier! Indeed, being forced by commercial pressures to use aging and obsolete testing equipment can make the job more challenging than ever.
In the event of new technology finding its way into an aerospace testing environment, it should be noted that it does not necessarily reduce the difficulty of the task. For example, post-flight interpretation of recorded video and audio from multiple crew stations can be far more complicated and time-consuming than simply observing operation of the system in person (or simply speaking to system users). Similarly, flight test instrumentation with increased numbers of parameters and greater resolution can pose considerable challenges in terms of data processing and interpretation of results.
In summary, aerospace testing is as challenging as ever, regardless of the availability of new technology. However, this does ensure that the traditional skills required to deliver safe and effective capability in air systems are protected, which is surely beneficial to customers and users of aerospace products.
Garnet Ridgway has a PhD from the University of Liverpool. He has designed cockpit instruments for Airbus and currently works for a leading UK-based aircraft test and evaluation organization
Sophie Robinson: The positive impact of advancing technology is evident in all areas of modern aerospace testing. From small gains like decreasing the amount of time taken to analyze data, to more sizeable gains in increasing sustainability and safety, advancing technology has played the leading role in allowing us, as engineers, to achieve everything we achieve today.
Technology allows us to do more for less, in less time, for less cost, with fewer people involved. Gone are the days of teams of engineers spending hours poring over UV recorder tapes of flight test data and analyzing films of auto-observer instruments; tasks that previously might have taken a team days or weeks are accomplished by a single individual in a matter of hours, allowing us to more rapidly deliver safety and capability.
Issues and concerns are much more easily identified, and often solved, due to the capacity that we have to delve deeply into the hundreds, if not thousands, of parameters recorded by a modern flight test instrumentation system – a capability that wouldn’t exist without technology. In this regard, the facts speak for themselves: flight has become demonstrably safer in the last few decades; this is no coincidence.
Advances in aerospace technology also enable much closer scrutiny to be applied to our work, producing higher-quality outputs by eliminating errors. Higher levels of automation remove the human element from our output – which is often the primary source of error. Additionally, this degree of automation provides a superior audit trail to support flight safety arguments, ultimately making the job of an aerospace testing professional easier.
Technology has also allowed for the de-risking of flight test programs during the preliminary stages. Better, more accurate simulation techniques are helping us define safe flight envelopes without the need to even turn a rotor or fire up an engine. A consequence of this is a reduction in the number of flying hours required, making flight test leaner and greener, and improving the sustainability of our industry. So, fundamentally, yes, advances in technology have made the job of early-development aerospace testing easier over the last few decades. However, this does not mean that it is without its challenges. Although the technical element may be easier, customer expectations have never been higher and nor budgets tighter.
In future, the toughest challenge facing the industry is unlikely to be a technical one; rather, it will be convincing customers of the need to continue investing in aerospace testing.
Sophie Robinson works on the front line of aerospace testing as a rotary wing performance and flying qualities engineer for a leading UK-based aircraft test organization. She also holds a PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Liverpool