Q: What up-and-coming technologies show the most promise?
A: Most people have heard of the Industry 4.0 concept. How can we bring our traditional, hand lay-up, paper-driven aerospace industry into the 21st century with Internet of Things (IoT) and big data? How can we take advantage of robotics, which will be different for the military? Robotics are fine-tuned for the automotive market, where you’re building a production run of a couple hundred thousand cars. In aerospace – and especially military aerospace – it may be hundreds or less. How can we have robotics and automation that make sense for a capital investment, but for low volumes with maybe a high mix of activity? Maybe you have a robot building parts for something, then the same robot drills something else and paints another component. The big thing is we need to bring composites fully into the digital age.
Q: What are the primary roadblocks to further adoption of composite materials in the Air Force’s most advanced platforms?
A: The big roadblock is certification. The Federal Aviation Administration certifies commercial airplanes indicating they are safe to fly. The Air Force certifies our own airplanes. For structural integrity, the processes were put in place for metal airplanes back in the 1960s and they really haven’t changed that much. Metals fail in a much different manner than composites, but composites are still held to that metal standard. Because of that, composites have to be heavier in order to adhere to the existing standards. We are leaving performance on the table because of that.
Q: So what is the Air Force doing to revamp the certification process for composites?
A: AFRL has a big investment in next-gen certification. First, we’re looking at existing airplanes because we’re going to extend the life of all airplanes. We now have aircraft in inventory with a lot of composites, like the F-22 and the B-2. We’re working with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center to come up with new certification processes to help them understand what has happened to those composites over the current life of the airplane and how we can extend the life of these composite-laden airplanes another 10, 20, 30 years.
We are also looking at how to revamp the certification criteria for new airplanes to take advantage of what happens with composites. We need a deeper understanding of how composites fail so we don’t get caught with some kind of a surprise that leads to a catastrophic mid-flight failure. The Air Force plans to spend $50 million or $60 million over a 10-year period looking at this.