Aviation should become daring, imaginative once again

Photo: Austin Probe, Jeremy Davis and Clark Moody demonstrate new aerospace technology from Vectornav. /Photo by John Starkey

Tom Enders the Chief Executive Officer of Airbus Group opened the AIAA Aviation 2015 conference on with a keynote address, Are We Moving Fast Enough?, on June 22.

The aviation and aerospace industry once sparked the imaginations of virtually all humanity. These fields were the source for a wealth of new technology and invention. Enders’ speech challenged today’s industry to compare itself to new and emerging industries as well as its former self to find its own bold, pioneering spirit once again.

“To kids like me in the 60s there seemed to be no limits: the moon, Mars, Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock. Nothing seemed to be beyond our reach,” Enders said. “We were moving faster and farther than ever before. Electronics were getting smaller and eventually the web was invented and was getting bigger.

“Aeronautics and aerospace were still the drivers of technological progress taking others along for the ride. But ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, times have changed. Intranet and Internet usage, coding, apps, networking, big data that is what drives progress today. It is no longer nations that are funding and leading the revolution. It is more and more individuals, entrepreneurs, disrupters. People who innovate by believing it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Though to be fair, they don’t exactly ask for forgiveness either.

“I think it was Eric Schmidt who describes many of these companies as ‘permissionless businesses.’ They simply move too fast for regulation.

“Was our pace of progress in the 50s, 60s well into the 70s sustainable or did he create false expectations? Can this industry drive technological progress again or are we being unrealistic assuming this? Whether the goal is Mars or closer to home can we honestly say that today we are doing enough in the aerospace industry fast enough? That seems like a strange question, after all connecting people faster over longer distances, that is still our business. It has been since the first commercial passenger flight to Tampa Bay 100 years ago. So is using that technology for defense, satellite communication or exploring the stars.

“That Tampa flight had just one passenger. In the hundred years since, there have been 65 billion passengers. There will be the same again in the next 15 years as air traffic doubles from today’s levels,” Enders said. “This means airlines will need nearly 30,000 new, efficient aircraft in the next 20 years to stay competitive.

“Incredibly we are probably seeing the same production rate for communications satellites soon. Companies like Airbus and our competitors used to build about 10 or 12 huge satellites a year. Unit prices were usually in the double or more often in the triple digit millions. Now with the one web, low Earth orbit consolation project our new US factory will build hundreds of units at less than 150 kg, a little bigger than a fridge, at less than $100 million per shot using technology and processes we developed for our commercial aircraft in our case for the a350.

“The best thing is it won’t just transform our industry. It will transform the lives of millions of people around the world by opening the Internet in an entirely new way. It’s a great reminder that astronautics is not just about reaching out to other planets or galaxies; it’s about it’s about improving and protecting life on the planet we already have,” he said.

“We in the aerospace industry can’t take progress for granted; not with more and more competition from outside traditional norms. It’s not just the big names,” Enders said. “It’s a whole wave of young entrepreneurs, mostly here in the United States of America. They are the new disrupters.

“Think of Kodak. They invented digital camera back in 1975. But they missed their own trick while protecting their film business. They got leapfrogged right out of the game. If this industry wants to avoid its own Kodak moment, we must balance incremental progress, low risk, solid and steady performance, which is obviously good for profits and shareholder value with true disruption. We cannot miss the revolution right under our noses. So we need to pay more attention to the new players; not only their products, but also their perspective, their philosophy of innovation. More importantly, we need to be open to partnering with them and working with them to shape new opportunities for the future.

“Until recently, our worlds did not collide. That is changing. People used to say that the Airbus/Boeing duopoly would be broken by the Chinese, the Canadians or the Brazilians. Well, they are still out there, and I for one certainly don’t underestimate them. But what if there is someone else? What if change comes about from another country or company but an entirely different industry?

“It is easy for people like us to think the tech guys are playing in somebody else’s backyard. But if they are, I believe it’s only temporary, whatever your industry. What if they overturn an industry by accident? These guys don’t play by a different set of rules. They make them up as they go along.”

Enders mentioned Airbus spent $20 billion to improve aircraft performance by 10 percent. The investment, a milestone in the aircraft industry, would be considered too little gain for too great an investment in other industries.

“Google’s 10X philosophy is to make something 10 times better not 10 percent better. For traditional industries, incremental change is important,” Enders said. “For ambitious tech companies, it is insignificant. We tend to save early, save often. They prefer to fail early and fail often. When they do fail, it can enhance their reputation as being innovative and entrepreneurial or crazy. If someone in our industry fails, it can be devastating. The very consequences of potential failure drives a lot of our technical and financial regulations as it should.

“But these are concerns that many of these new commission-less businesses consider a nuisance. If they consider them at all.

“To be sure ladies and gentlemen, safety must be paramount. But do we use restrictions as a crutch? We can never compromise on safety, but do we use regulations as an excuse at least sometimes?

“If we are to learn and benefit from this new environment, if we are to draw advantage from the tech revolution, if we are to thrive when the lines between corporations and competition get blurred, then we must protect the safety critical parts of the business, but we must also rediscover the appetite for risk, speed and energy that hooked us on this industry in the first place. The two must live side by side.

“What distinguishes the startup technology community is to focus on being bold regardless of risk and regardless of offending anybody. Our energy must go towards riding the tech wave, not protecting ourselves against it. This industry was the driver of technological progress in the 50s, 60s and beyond. We were bold too. This industry needs to recapture that pioneer spirit to find ways to work with new audacious partners,” he said.