It’s my turn to bring you a roundup of engineering stories in the news over the last few weeks – and what a few weeks it has been! Firstly, an insight into the technology that enabled Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking leap from the edge of space. Also, news of a near production cardboard bicycle that could cost as little as $20, and Nissans plans for steer-by-wire cars to hit dealers in 2013. Finally, and for no reason other than I can, a gratuitous link to a picture of eleven SR-71 Blackbirds (perhaps the single most awesome thing to trash the sound barrier…. until Felix) hanging out together. Continue reading
During my final few months at Kingston University, just like everyone else wanting to graduate, a 15,000 word dissertation on a project of choice was required. Mine was the design of a Fire-fighting Aircraft, in which I proposed that the modification of an existing aircraft will be the ideal way of going about this.
RAF Voyager, the Aircraft to replace the VC-10 just like my theoretical Fire-fighting aircraft is a modified Aircraft – an Airbus A330-200. With such a proven track record, it is no surprise that similar decisions have been made by the Governments of India, USA, Australia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, France.
However, the peculiar aspect of the Voyager is the means by which the project is being funded – PFI (Public Finance Initiative).
Under this arrangement, the private sector takes on the risk of designing, building, maintaining and operating the 14 MRTT Aircrafts (Multi Role Transport Tanker), to the output specifications set by the MOD which includes Aerial Refuelling Capabilities. As a result the Airtanker Consortium (Shareholder breakdown below) was formed and awarded the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) contract in 2008.
At a RAeS lecture on the 23rd of February 2011, James Scott - Director of Flight Operations at Airtanker, said this route allows for healthy collaboration between the public and private sector that gets the best of both worlds.
Several Individuals though, disagree that PFI is the best available finance option, including the National Audit Office who published a report detailing the deficiencies of the PFI deal, some of which are costs that are likely to spiral beyond the published estimated values.
The following is a quote from the NAO report published 30 march 2010.
The contract for FSTA is likely to cost arround £10.5 billion over its duration, although this is a forecast based on expected usage rates and the actual cost could vary. The department [MOD] has estimated the full project cost at £12.3 billion, once its own ongoing costs are included. FSTA will cost the department [MOD[ an average annual payment of around £390 million to Airtanker, but the department [MOD] will not start paying for the contract until FSTA is introduced to service. In addition, the department [MOD] will pay £60 million per annum on personnel, fuel and other related costs. Between the start of the formal assessment phase and contract signature, the department spent £48 million managing the project, including £27 million on advisers, £10 million on supporting the bidders and £11 million on internal costs.
A series of reports have also been published by the House of Commons‘ Treasury commitee, that concluded that PFI deals are too costly, inflexible and opaque.
In a BBC radio 4 programme broadcast in June last year, one of the issues raised with PFI deals is that Equity holders (See Chart above for Airtanker shareholders) are known to sell on their shares for as much as 30% profit. Even If equities are not sold, it is difficult to determine whether excessive profits are not being made on the deals due to a lack of access to cost breakdown of projects. Some of the more technical flaws of the project, are discussed in a very long blog post here.
Personally, I conclude that although these public-private partnerships are an excellent idea, the execution so far have been very dissapointing.
I read recently that a German company, PC-Aero has developed a heavier than air fixed wing aircraft capable of carrying a single person with plans to carry two persons, then four persons as the technology develops. (see video)
This raises an interesting possibility of using such technology, not just for the recreational market, but also for the aid aircraft sector. Through organisations such as Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), an aid aircraft is taking off every 3mins worldwide, accumulating tens of thousands of flying hours every day.
Such levels of flying take vast quantities of Avgas, which can be hard to find and secure in some challenging locations. What if the electric aircraft could serve in such a situation? The hangar would be roofed with solar panels, charging the aircraft while on the ground. Given, the original outlay would be higher and maintenance costs would be higher, but the long term investment could yield a return.
At present, the technology is in its infancy and the payload capabilities are too small. Nevertheless, I see a great future for this technology, delivering aid where it is most needed.
As the government cuts its losses on Nimrod – Where does this leave Britain’s military aero-industry? The decision comes as the entire Harrier fleet is retired – delivering a symbolic shift away from British aircraft.
Harrier will be replaced by the Joint-Strike Fighter, but not for another ten years! BAe is a junior partner in the STOVL (Short Take-off and Vertical Landing) aircraft – but it is a Lockheed Martin and will be built in the US.
Despite the Defence Review – the writing has been on the wall for the Nimrod MR4A ever since the RAF bought Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS (Airbourne Warning and Control System) in the 90s. Even then it was running late and over budget. Despite being based on the 1950s Comet 4 airliner it would have kept high-tech early warning radar development within these shores – rather than relying on the expensive American alternative ($270m in 1987).
But the cost of the AWACS now looks better value compared to Nimrod. Last year with escalating costs the order was cut from 21 to 9 – quadrupling the cost per aircraft to £400m. Its cancellation was no surprise – over budget, 8 years late and still not ready!
Harrier and Nimrod are the last British designed and engineered military front-line aircraft – and their passing is symbolic of the decline of the British aircraft industry. Not of today – but the last forty years when high costs have seen companies forced into joint-ventures.
Rolls-Royce remain an important player in developing engines for today’s aircraft, and BAe are a partner in such aircraft as Eurofighter, the Joint-Strike Fighter and the Airbus A400M. But the day of the British designed and engineered warplane from Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster to Lightning, Harrier and Nimrod is well and truly over.
As the Defence Review’s cuts hit home – the armed forces have been hit hard. It was thought one of the new carriers would be cancelled, but it now looks like it may be built – but sold after three years!
Last time Britain thought of selling a new carrier was April 1982. Then Argentina invaded the Falklands and the rest is history – the deal with Australia was shelved as HMS Invincible lived up to her name.
Critics say if the Falklands were invaded today – Britain couldn’t do a repeat performance. HMS Ark Royal is being decommissioned, and the entire fleet of 80 Harriers withdrawn – leaving Britain unable to mount another unsupported attack until the Joint Strike Fighter arrives in 2020.
The new generation of nuclear submarines are postponed until at least 2028 – that’s four years after the Vanguard-class are to be scrapped. The cuts also mean finally cancelling Nimrod. No surprise – but where does this leave the British aircraft industry?
The army has also seen its Challenger 2 tanks cut by 40% and the decision on Trident has been put off for six years – or in other words until after the next election. Tories and Labour support a nuclear deterrent while the Liberals ask ‘Does Britain need Trident?’
The imminent ‘Defence Review‘ which plans to bring the MoD into line with all other government departments – will mean the loss of thousands of engineering jobs. Defence isn’t ring-fenced, so faces cuts of up to 40%.
This is likely to mean cutting one of the two 65,000ton ‘Queen Elizabeth’ class aircraft carriers planned for delivery in 2016. HMS Queen Elizabeth is well underway, but the second ship HMS Prince of Wales looks likely to be cancelled with a saving of £2.5billion.
The RAF and Navy are also reported to have their order for Lockheed Martin/BAe F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft slashed from 130 to 50. Cuts to the STOVL (short take-off and vertical landing) US-built Harrier replacement will save the tax-payer a further £8billion.
There has even been talk of saving costs by having a joint nuclear deterrent with the French – This would be nothing new for BAe who have long had continental bedfellows through Eurofighter, Tornado and Jaguar.
What is not just talk will be the very real loss of engineering jobs – an inevitable consequence of taking over £10billion out of the industry.