India: A New Aerospace Engineering Hub?
India’s government came under criticism in late 2018 after deciding to reduce a planned contract for 126 multirole military aircraft to a deal for 36 fighter jets to be assembled in France.
The program will see a significant number of subsystems and components coming from Indian companies. The work required to produce those parts will add to an aerospace and defense industry that is exploding in the number of next generation aviation technologies being researched and developed.
Under the $9 billion deal, Dassault Aviation will provide 36 Rafale fighter jets for the Indian Air Force with an offsets requirement to invest 50% of the total contract value into domestic military aeronautics-related research programs and locally sourced subsystems and components.
“The deal is definitely going to be a boon to the Indian small and medium enterprise (SME) sector apart from bigger companies such as Reliance. Over 500 SMEs are expected to be involved in the project,” said Arjun Sreekumar, a Frost & Sullivan analyst covering India’s aerospace and defense manufacturing industry.
“However, a point to note is that the 36 Dassault jets will not be assembled in India, India will manufacture components and send them to France where the assembly will take place. So from a platform building perspective quantum leaps in capability can be ruled out. Two areas of benefit that India is particularly keen on is the offsets by Thales and Safran which will supply avionics and engines for the Rafale respectively,” he added.
What Aerospace Engineers Are Making in India
There are a number of government and industry initiatives, new research facilities and start ups being established driving innovation in new aviation electronics technologies being developed in India.
As an example, in January 2018 the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India officially announced its formal recommendation for the development of a hybrid satellite and air to ground network that can support in-flight internet and mobile phone calling in the near future. One of the requirements for any in-flight satellite or air to ground connectivity service provider applying to provide such a network in India is that there is a guaranteed local presence in provisioning in-flight connectivity in Indian airspace through what TRAI describes as a unified licensee.
The Airports Authority of India is upgrading India’s air traffic management network centers, security operations and satellite gateways for remote locations under a 15-year $141 million contract awarded to Harris Corp. at the 2018 U.S.-India Aviation Summit. Under the plan, Harris will upgrade 91 sites for ATC operations.
One company that has emerged as a major new player in India’s domestic avionics industry is Cyient. Aerospace and defense is just one of 12 different industry sectors that Cyient provides engineering, design led manufacturing, network and analytics services for.
But in 2017, the avionics aspect of their aerospace division took a major step forward by acquiring Certon. The Melbourne, Florida-based Certon’s catalogue of internally developed tools, processes, and exclusive technology for streamlining approvals of safety-critical aircraft systems, software, and complex hardware first and second tier aerospace systems integrators will help Cyient introduce new avionics technologies capable of meeting international airworthiness standards.
A year after acquiring Certon, at the 2018 Farnborough International Air Show, they unveiled their new X–Band single-channel transmit and receive module designed to support air defense, and airborne fighter radar applications in multiple configurations such as tile architecture and quad-TRM. But the company also has a major interest in providing avionics engineering services such as certification and testing to major aerospace and defense systems integrators and manufacturers.
“There is a renewed interest in logic equivalence, validating that tool chains retain the functional integrity of the design. This reduces the burden of post-layout timing simulation. Timing tests can focus on parametric requirements and retain test credit from functional RTL simulation. Demonstrating this powerful method for certification will advance system on chip verification techniques, helping to manage the increased complexity of modern avionics,” said, Wallace Everest, chief engineer – aerospace and defense at Cyient.
Multicore processors and system on chip (SOC) solutions are one of the major technological trends Everest sees growing in next generation commercial and defense avionics. The advantage he sees in multicore systems is a significant amount of power and utility in a commercial off the shelf solution. This can allow many of the domestic and international second and third tier aerospace suppliers Cyient works with to reduce their hardware costs and rapidly implement powerful sub-systems.
Everest said Cyient is also focusing on establishing relationships with avionics intellectual property vendors to capture verification artifacts, regression data and tool qualification techniques needed to introduce new avionics applications into commercial and military air transport category airplanes.
Outside of pure safety critical avionics engineering and certification support, Cyient is also
researching and developing next generation computing concepts for next generation aircraft electronics applications.
“We all can identify the next technologies, digital twins, predictive maintenance, improved connectivity, augmented reality and machine learning that OEMs will pursue to transform the aerospace landscape. Farnborough helped us calibrate those as the major categories of technologies that have been prioritized by the OEMs on future airborne platforms,” said Justin Bragan, Sr. Director of Business Development, aerospace and defense, Cyient.
Development of innovative next generation artificial intelligence and machine learning applications for the aerospace industry has seen major growth in terms of not only research and develop in India, but actual on and off aircraft applications as well.
A good example of this is occurring at Ramco Systems, a provider of cloud computing, automation and other cutting edge technologies for aviation and other industries, based in the Chennai region of India.
Their most recent major commercial aviation win came in the form of a October 2018 contract agreement signed with Airbus Helicopters. Under that contract, Ramco engineers will develop a management information system (MIS) data pack connector designed to store, update and transfer health and performance information for in-service Airbus choppers.
Ramco has also been a major provider of Microsoft Azure cloud and Hololens-based computing automation to aerospace as well. Air France KLM has a partnership with Ramco to evaluate the use of the potential for blockchain to become its new digital ledger for managing replacement parts on in-service airplanes. One such research project included a demonstration of an Air France aircraft coming under an aircraft on the ground (AOG) status due to a hydraulic system failure. After troubleshooting the situation using information sourced from information available in a blockchain used by the manufacturer, maintenance team and flight crew, the engineering team quickly concluded that the system had an actuator that was in need of repair.
The company is also developing aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul applications (MRO) applications for the Microsoft Hololens. Through the use of of augmented and mixed reality, Ramco’s goal is to establish an amalgamated digital interaction between human and machine within commercial aviation MRO work flows that reduces unneeded manual labor. The two biggest MRO use cases of the Hololens Ramco is developing include training and remote support.
“3D models of jet turbines can be converted into detailed holograms and rendered on HoloLens, resulting in an immersive training experience,” said Sam Jacob, head of the aviation division of Ramco Systems.
“Every component of the jet turbine can be navigated intricately and, on selecting a specific component, the engineer can gain access to detailed videos and related visual information about the component. Similarly, it is also possible to expand extensively from this perspective and digitize an entire aircraft from corresponding 3D models. These holograms are delivered as training apps on HoloLens and they provide a precise and exhaustive view of every aspect of the aircraft,” he said.
Ramco is also researching and developing the use of bots and machine learning algorithms to introduce active enterprise resource management programs (ERP) to the commercial aviation MRO world’s current state of what Jacobs describes as “passive ERPs.” The tenets of Ramco’s active ERP framework include zero user interface, frictionless interactions and event driven notifications.
Jacobs said the ultimate goal is to give organizations that provide aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul the ability to use intelligent conversational interfaces or bots to track and perform transactions pertaining to their aircraft.
“Ramco’s active ERP framework is aimed at significantly improving productivity by bringing down the user interaction levels with the software. The zero user interface concept is broadly categorized into three parts. These include voice and text-based transactions, smart actions and automated self-completing transactions,” said Jacobs.
By 2025, India is expected to surpass the U.K. as the world’s third largest market for commercial airline operations. The South Asian nation’s passenger traffic is projected to surge to 278 million annual passengers while also accounting for 19.1 million new aviation jobs according to the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) latest 20-year global forecast.
Boeing also projects demand for 2,100 new airplanes worth $290 billion in India over the next 20 years.
This type of robust growth potential has attracted major investment from aerospace industry giants to establish new facilities in India.
Airbus for example has a joint commercial and defense aircraft training and engineering center with 5,000 employees in Bangalore. There the company is developing flight management systems, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and digital simulation and visualization.
The French manufacturer is also working with technology startups at its Airbus BizLab in Bengaluru. There, startups are provided with a six-month accelerator program where they’re given access to free office space and a pool of mentors and experts from within Airbus to help their ideas and business plans take flight. Over the last two years, the business accelerator has mentored 16 startups.
One such company, Mumbai-based Airpix, was recently able to secure a joint go-to-market partnership with Airbus Aerial services to provide its customized three dimensional drone data analytics, automated data interpretation, aerial data visualization and measurement solutions in India.
Boeing’s India Engineering & Technology Center (BIETC) is also located in Bangalore and has expanded from just 50 employees in 2015 to 1,500 today. The company also works with 160 different suppliers in India for systems and components featured on 737, 777, 787, P-8, F/A-18 Super Hornet, F-15, KC-46 Tanker, V22, AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook.
HorizonX, the venture investment division launched by Boeing in 2017 to invest in disruptive aviation technology startups, is also helping to foster new innovation for the aviation industry developed by Indian aerospace engineers.
“Launched in partnership with India’s largest startup incubator, T-Hub, the 2018 Boeing HorizonX India Innovation Challenge invited disruptive solutions to tackle complex challenges in the areas of autonomous and unmanned systems, advanced manufacturing, industrial Internet of Things (IOT) and automation, analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning,” Bala Bharadvaj, managing director of BIETC said.
That challenge lead to the selection of three aerospace startups that Boeing will provide funding around.
The three startups include a company called Merxius, which has developed an extended reality (XR) authoring software for non-coders. Their software is designed to reduce reduce training times in aircraft manufacturing through the use of extended reality training environments. A second company, HuviAir, provides custom unmanned aircraft services and software solutions for surveying and workflow management. The third, ZestIOT is developing airport and airplane IOT technologies designed to optimize ground handling at airports and improve on time performance.
Boeing also has a major new partnership with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Mahindra Defense Systems (MDS) for manufacturing the F/A-18 Super Hornet in India.
“Boeing’s Make-in-India Super Hornet proposal would bring final test and assembly of Super Hornets to India. A Boeing- Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)-Mahindra Defence Systems (MDS) partnership will transform India’s aerospace and defense ecosystem by manufacturing F/A-18 Super Hornets in India and developing future technologies jointly,” Bharadvaj said.
On the general aviation side of the industry, India’s long running multinational industrial conglomerate Mahindra is making waves. Mahindra Aerospace’s Airvan 10, a 10-seat single engine turboprop, achieved U.S. and Australian type certification in 2017. While the aircraft is assembled in Australia, the aero structures business of the Airvan is based in India, where the company has a facility spanning 270,000 square feet near Bengaluru.
Mahindra is now seeking approval for the Airvan 10 from India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation to allow sales and deliveries in its home country.
“The First Airvan 10 Order has been taken in Botswana, for scenic flight operations. This will be delivered in 2020. The aircraft is fitted with a Garmin G500 primary flight display/multi function display system as part of the standard configuration,” said Keith Douglas, CEO of Mahindra Aerospace’s aircraft division.
Mahindra’s next production goal is to develop the first test aircraft for their new Amphibious Float Airvan 8 in 2020.
While India will not be building a domestically manufactured commercial or defense aircraft any type soon, it will continue to use offset policies and partnerships to expand its presence as an aerospace engineering hub supplying next generation systems and components to the largest aerospace and defense manufacturers in the world.
“I see Indian majors working closely and collaboratively with foreign defense OEMs so that the indigenous industry can benefit from the rub off in terms of technology, IP and quality control. foreign OEMs in these partnerships will continue to benefit from low costs of production. The government has also eased export control on defense components so I see Indian defense majors vying for foreign markets and becoming tier two and tier three suppliers to the global supply chain in the short and medium term,” Frost & Sullivan’s Sreekumar said.