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New £250m fund to help electric and autonomous aircraft take off in the UK

Professional Engineering

The Volante Vision eVTOL concept (Credit: Aston Martin)
The Volante Vision eVTOL concept (Credit: Aston Martin)

A new £250m investment will develop electric, vertical take-off and autonomous aircraft in the UK, while seeking to reassure a sector rattled by Brexit concerns.

The money – £125m from the government, matched by industry – was announced by business secretary Greg Clark in Bristol today, one year after the launch of the Industrial Strategy. 

Companies receiving part of the fund will initially focus on smaller aircraft and drones, aiming to ensure the suitability of new technologies by 2025 before developing them for larger passenger aircraft. Projects will include electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft (eVTOLs), potentially including concepts such as the Volante Vision from Aston Martin, Cranfield University and Rolls-Royce, goods and service drones, and autonomous aircraft. The ambitious investment aims to “transform the future of transport in urban areas” to ease congestion.

The quarter-of-a-billion pound fund follows concerns raised over the potential impact of Brexit on issues including trade, recruitment and supply chain reliability by major players in the aerospace sector, including Airbus. Today, however, the company’s chief operating officer Tom Williams said the investment “demonstrates a clear commitment that, against a backdrop of growing global competition, the UK is investing in the technology of the future.”

Greg Clark said: “The UK’s contribution to the global aerospace industry cannot be underestimated. Half of the world’s modern large passenger aircraft have wings designed and built here in the UK – and every 2.5 seconds, a Rolls-Royce powered aircraft takes off or lands.

“But we are not complacent. The future of aerospace is cleaner, greener, and more efficient, and we want the UK to be the pioneers of new technology that will pave the way for increased electrification and autonomy in commercial aviation.”

The announcement also included a £15m government investment in GKN Aerospace’s new technology centre in Bristol, which is expected to open in 2020. The facility will focus on the development of next-generation, fuel-efficient aircraft, employing 300 engineers and collaborating with the UK research community.

Elsewhere in the aerospace ‘sector deal’ was £13.7m to support SMEs to commercialise technologies and a pledge to increase the number of women in aviation.

Professor Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University and chairman of the UK Aerospace Research Consortium, called today’s announcements “an important step” to protect one of the crown jewels in UK industry.

“At Cranfield, we welcome the commitment to the ‘Future Flight challenge’,” he said. “This mirrors a lot of our work in projects such as Volante and the National Beyond Visual Line of Sight Experimentation Corrider (NBEC) which are bringing the very best minds from industry and from academia together to look at how we can deliver personal vertical take-off vehicles and the greater integration of drones and aircraft.

“This sector deal is a very exciting announcement and we at Cranfield, together with our partners from both industry and academia, will do all we can to make sure its lofty ambitions become reality.”

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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