Collaborating on aero and defense can be like shooting for the moon

By Genevieve Oger
Small Times Contributing Editor

Sept. 5, 2006 — The French city of Toulouse is an aerospace town. The headquarters of Airbus and the French National Center for Space Studies are nearby, as is Aerospace Valley, a French cluster of hundreds of companies and state bodies focused on space. It’s an appropriate place to hold the third CANEUS conference, a bi-annual forum designed to help transform micro and nanotechnologies into real-life aerospace applications.

CANEUS is an acronym for Canada, Europe and the United States — the regions that launched the initiative five years ago. Asia and Brazil have since joined, though the acronym has remained unchanged. The group came out of a frustration many aerospace scientists were struggling with. Labs around the world were wasting resources by working on the same projects, each reinventing the wheel in their own way.

That wasn’t the only problem, according to CANEUS co-founder Thomas George, a director at software firm Vialogy. “I had been working at (NASA’s) Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where we had developed 25 technologies, of which only one had made it successfully to mission,” he said, adding that micro and nanotech innovations in particular face Darwinian odds. “Out of 100 good concepts, less than one percent will make it to product — not because of technological flaws, but because the inventor isn’t savvy enough to raise money, to create a system level product, or (he or she) lacks marketing skills.”

The group’s founders realized that the great majority of micro and nano innovations never get beyond the initial phase. The concepts and principles might have been proven and the ideas might work. But the innovations have to be put into a system that will work with the rest of the aircraft. The unit must be tested for reliability on the ground and then in space. The great majority of innovations get stuck in this very expensive mid-development stage — the so-called “valley of death” applications must get through before making it onto a real flight mission.

The conference in Toulouse, held Aug. 27 to Sept. 1, was organized in three parts — First a short course briefing people on systems and different aspects of international collaborations, then a conference detailing what different experts are doing around the world, followed by two days of workshops. “The workshops are where we get to the meat of it, where we get to the business plans, look at end users,” George said. “All in enough detail to present a well-thought-out project to the guys with the money.” The focus of the workshops is on getting developers to work on projects end-users actually need and are willing to pay for. That way, traversing the perilous valley will be as quick as possible.

Xavier Lafontan is the manager of Nova Mems, a Toulouse area company that performs reliabilities tests on micro and nanotechnologies for their customers, which include Alcatel Alenia Space, MEMS-maker Memscap and industrial conglomerate Siemens. He says that the aeronautics industry is a particularly challenging environment in which to integrate new technologies. “At first glance it seems like a big market, but when you look closer you realize the components are extremely diverse and that the market for each product is actually quite small — making development costs very steep,” Lafontan said.

In addition, the aeronautics industry has very specific requirements — an aircraft has to last 30 years and components have to function in extremely harsh conditions — making it even more expensive. “So there is certainly a need for this type of gathering to identify where the sticking points are and how we can get beyond them together.”

Extreme conditions and product life aren’t the only reason why it’s tougher to break into the aeronautics industry, compared to, for example, cars or clothing. The United States still considers space a strategic interest and ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) concerns can sometimes prevent many international collaborations from getting off the ground. This obstacle leads some to think that this type of collaboration can never fully succeed. “Nothing is impossible,” said Alcatel Space’s Augustin Coello-Vera, “because there’s collaboration on the International Space Station, but it’s certainly very difficult.”

Despite the various constraints of the aerospace industry, a few success stories are beginning to emerge. One of the workshops of the 2004 conference in Monterrey led to a partnership on nanocomposite materials that was later funded by Lockheed Martin. The U.S. military contractor is now in the process of building the F-35 Lightning II, a fighter aircraft for the U.S. and British governments. CANEUS Chairman Milind Pimprikar says the new plane is scheduled to be equipped with this nanocomposite material. “It was one of the concepts presented in the workshops of the 2004 conference and now the project is moving ahead.” This year, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency committed to funding about one fifth of a miniature satellite project presented at one of the workshops.

The Technologies Reliability workshop at the 2006 event looked at setting up international standards for testing small technologies in space. One of the greatest barriers to using new technologies in flight missions is that the stakes are so high that space agencies or satellite companies don’t want to take any risks with new components or materials.

David Openheimer, chief scientist for Tennessee-based venture capital group Capri Partners says this remains one of the greatest barriers to developing new space applications. “Without an international standard for tests and evaluation of parts in space, the likelihood that an end-user will use those parts is very low,” he said, explaining that the existence of internationally-recognized testing standards could build confidence in this area, without much chance of ITAR issues cropping up.


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