An insider’s view of Bombardier’s C-Series

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  • By Emily McDaid - TechWatch

    In this Q&A, Bombardier gives an inside view of electric sensor and analytics innovations – and whether we’ll be flying hybrid planes anytime soon. Bombardier is a NISP CONNECT platinum member.

    I was invited to the NIACE building, a platform for shared learning across the advanced engineering, materials and manufacturing sectors owned jointly by QUB and Ulster University. Researchers in the state-of-the-art building produce knowledge that may be used across resident corporations like Bombardier, and the universities, for the greater good.

    In this auspicious environment I had the opportunity to speak to Gavin Campbell, Bombardier’s Director of Design Engineering and Technology Development, about his latest focus: the C Series aircraft. The C Series are mid-size passenger planes with 100 to 150 seats, entering airline service this summer.

    TechWatch: What are the latest trends in aeronautics?

     “In a highly regulated industry it can take a long time to see advancements. Our C Series aircraft is the latest in ‘fly-by-wire’, where as much as possible of the operational components of the plane are automated, run by sensors and analytics. This hugely increases safety, improves efficiency, and it means more factors are monitored simultaneously than a pilot could do alone. Aside from major positive environmental benefits, the C Series is the quietest in-production commercial jet in its class and our noise performance test data confirms that. 

    TechWatch: Will we fly on hybrid/electric planes anytime soon?

    GAVIN: “The rate-limiting factor in electric is the weight of batteries versus the need to keep the aircraft as light as possible. In Belfast we have a keen capability for innovation. But at present, the energy density of the fuel source in hybrid/electric is only enough to fly one person for a few hours, not 400 people across the Atlantic.”

    TechWatch: Are the planes built in their entirety here? [I asked this because I wondered if testing was happening literally over my head.]

     “The wings are designed, manufactured and assembled here using our unique Resin Transfer Infusion (RTI) process. They’re actually the largest and most complex composite structure manufactured and assembled in the UK using this particular technology. They’re then shipped to Canada where the planes are assembled. Then, they go through flight testing – the first commercial uses will happen this Summer, and it’s exciting because it will be in Europe.” [SWISS will fly the first commercial flight on 15 July from Zurich to Paris.]


    TechWatch: What sorts of innovations are the Belfast teams responsible for?

     “The electrical systems in C Series are highly advanced. For example, in addition to communication and navigation, the operation of on-board systems including engines and anything that impacts the running of the aircraft will be picked up by sensors and alerted to the pilot, as well as to ground crew back at base. An in-flight issue would be seen just as fast on the ground as at 30,000 feet. Many of the cost saving opportunities to the airlines involve reducing how long the plane is on the ground for maintenance during its life, including flight turnaround times. But in Belfast, our core business is designing and building the aircraft primary structures, such as wings. It’s about smart automation and smart processes. We get to know our processes and make them more competitive through advanced manufacturing and new innovations. We are constantly gathering data about our processes to tweak and improve them.”

    TechWatch: What are we best at?

     “To build a successful future, we need to control our own destiny. NI is known as a region for engineering prowess, ingenuity and hard-working people. Bombardier uses incredible companies in the market locally, such as DenroyBASE, Datum Design, Hutchinson and Williams Industrial Services. In manufacturing it’s about market know-how – that’s where the real value lies. If you can be agile and stay one step ahead of the latest innovations, you can gain 2-3 years in market advantage before everyone else starts using it. That’s the real intellectual property in manufacturing.”

    TechWatch: What will we be flying in 2050?

     “The C Series.”

    TechWatch: You can’t argue with that kind of confidence.

     “Remember, this market is heavily regulated and moves slowly. The C Series will be in production for 20-30 years and the aircraft lifespan will be 20-30 years. The C Series offers a significantly reduced environmental footprint, including 20 per cent less CO2 emissions and 50 per cent less NOX emissions.”

    TechWatch: So, we won’t be boarding a hybrid/electric plane to NYC anytime soon, but what about shorter-haul? Is there more room for innovation there?

     “It’s down to both regulatory controls and getting the needed propulsion. At the moment oil prices are down, so there’s been less emphasis on alternative fuel sources. The availability and cheaper price of oil means less funding goes into plant-based fuels. In Europe, the USA and Canada there is headway with corn-, algae- and camellina-based fuels, and we have flown flight tests with fuel blends, which are very promising.”

    TechWatch: Where do you place your bets for the future?

     High-value, advanced manufacturing is where I see a massive opportunity. We are particularly positioned for creating these breakthrough technologies in NI.”

    This article was orginally featured on NISP Connect's TechWatch.
    To read more from TechWatch click here.

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