Paris Air Show report

E&T picks some highlights from last month’s centennial Paris Air Show at Le Bourget.

One hundred years after French aviation pioneers Blériot, Breguet and Esnault-Pelterie organised the first international 'Airborne Locomotion Exhibition', visitors to the 48th Paris Air Show witnessed a somewhat under-stated 'first flight' event: the first airborne demonstration of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) .

Automated drones, flitting around the skies - observing, monitoring, sometimes blasting the hell out of something - have been stock fare in sci-fi films for decades, but are rarely seen in the real world. Although the concept of the UAV dates back to the early 20th century and, operationally speaking, came of age in 1990 US military conflicts, it remains in the shadows, universally disliked by pilots and distrusted by the rest of us.

The debut of the Schiebel Camcopter S-100 at Le Bourget required approval from France's Istres flight-test centre, which conducted a rigorous text programme, but back home in Austria the Camcopter flies routinely between its factory and a demonstration area in a 'designated UAV corridor' in civil airspace. Although its payload for the show was limited to a visible/IR video camera, the Camcopter "could be weaponised", according to its makers.

If the thought of an unmanned, rocket-toting drone patrolling the streetscape of your favourite city leaves you cold, you are not alone. Even use in distant battlefields raises questions of accuracy, autonomy and reliability.

Nevertheless, David Vos, senior director of control technologies at Rockwell-Collins, points only to the "tremendous success" of UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to "change the embedded culture" of distrust. According to Vos, the demand for UAVs continues to grow, from a total population of 167 in 2001 to more than 5,500 today. "Every 20 to 30 minutes, a UAV takes off or lands totally automatically", he adds. "You just push a button."

As for manned and unmanned vehicles in the same airspace, Vos says "we are doing it today", for example in tackling the Southern California fires, while LA, Miami and Houston are running a (somewhat misnamed) 'police pilot programme'. He predicts: "UAVs will fly with manned aircraft in commercial airspace soon".

Tackling the issue of 'damage tolerance', Vos showed a video of a Rockwell UAV adaptive control test in which 60 per cent of a wing was blown off by remote control: the vehicle recovered autonomously. The system was then switched off to indicate that it had been doing its job, and then on again to show its recovery and landing.

It was clear from displays in the exhibition halls and on the apron that, as Vos confirmed, "all the major companies are in the field". For example, EADS was pushing its proposed Talarion medium-altitude, long-endurance platform, designed to operate at 50,000 feet for 24 hours, and Israel's Urban Aeronautics debuted the Mule, an unmanned 'flying ambulance' designed to evacuate casualties without risking other lives.

Much of the rise of the UAV is due to advances in micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), which "drive performance up and costs down", said Vos, quoting "$3,000-4,000 for a 4oz [120g] unit that will fly a UAV". In fact, so confident is Rockwell in the technology that it sees no end to its applications: "Give us the airplane and we will fly it unmanned", said Vos.

Recession? What recession?

Despite the global recession, the economic mood at Le Bourget was better than expected and the numbers were impressive. The first day's total topped $5.6bn, including a 'surprise' $1.9bn order for 24 Airbus A320-type aircraft from Qatar Airways, which almost doubled the manufacturer's 2009 order book so far. The CEO of the fast-expanding airline, Akbar Al Baker, said "our focus is on maintaining a very young fleet".

By the end of the week, the total for Airbus had risen to 127 aircraft worth some $12.9bn, assuming all deals are concluded in full and at list price. Airbus COO John Leahy said, with a degree of understatement: "We're pleased with the results. Before the show, some people were predicting doom and gloom, but I think we're seeing a little bit of upside."

By contrast, Airbus rival Boeing announced only one commercial jet order at the show - for two single-aisle 737s - bringing its 2009 total to just 10 firm orders. It is, however, worth noting that it delivered its 777th Boeing-777 to Air France in April.

British aero-engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce won $2bn worth of orders for planes bought by budget airline Air Asia X and Middle-Eastern carrier Etihad, while Hungarian carrier Malév signed a letter of intent to buy 30 Sukhoi Superjet 100 regional airliners in a deal worth $1bn.

Although satellite sales are rarely news at airshows, the European Space Agency announced the signing of a launch contract with Arianespace for the Galileo satnav programme, booking two flights of the Russian Soyuz rocket.

Suborbital push

Although the financial crisis has delayed EADS Astrium's entry into the suborbital tourism market, the company remains "totally convinced" of its potential, according to Astrium CEO Francois Auque. He admitted, however, that "nobody knows" when development will begin, because the proposed space-plane is dependent on finding private investors. That didn't stop Astrium making the Advanced Re-entry Vehicle, a concept for a manned space capsule, a centrepiece of its stand.

Aerospace industry addresses climate issues

Air shows are historically the aircraft-makers' shop window for the latest developments in speed, performance, manoeuvrability and the like, but in recent years a green theme has emerged alongside the engineering parameters, especially in commercial aviation. At Le Bourget this year, it made itself known in the form of green logos, surface decoration on stands and even a 'turf'-covered engine cowling.

Engineering group ITT met the issues head-on with a round table entitled 'Climate change is a global problem… does the aerospace industry have a solution?', featuring such notables as Jean-Louis Fellous, executive director of COSPAR (the multi-national Committee on Space Research) and US government advisor Berrien Moore. David Melcher, president of ITT Defense Electronics and Services, kicked off the debate with the "critical aspect" of monitoring and observation. "Monitoring and verification of climate change activities - and especially emissions - will be key to the success of any treaty framework or national regulatory scheme," he said.

As a representative of the space research community, Fellous was keen to stress the importance of CO2 measurements from satellites, particularly for verifying international conventions. The European Space Agency's climate change initiative and the recent launch of Japan's Greenhouse-gas Observing Satellite (GOSAT) - "the first dedicated CO2 mission" - were two examples, he said.

However, Cyril Crevoisier of the French research agency CNRS stressed the need for ground-based measurements to provide "ground truth data" and the importance of aircraft to validate satellite measurements.

Taking more of a technology overview, Berrien Moore opined that "we are under-sampling the atmosphere" and must view it as a continuing task "for hundreds of years to come". A stark indication of the effects of global warming, he added, was the fact that, in 2007, "there were two North-West Passages through the Arctic Ocean".

Perhaps predictably, the science-based panel concluded that politics and policy agreements were a greater challenge than the science, but Moore believes that satellites can help depoliticise the issues, because they ignore political boundaries. Fellous agreed: "Satellites have no opinion, they just take measurements."

George Seielstad, an academic at the University of North Dakota, showed more optimism. "The Montreal Protocol worked for CFCs," he said.

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