In this edition, we shine the spotlight on Stephen Rolston, Head of Aeromechanics and Acoustics at Airbus.
I am currently the Head of Aeromechanics and Acoustics Domain at Airbus Innovations which is part of the corporate research function of Airbus which includes Airbus Helicopters, Airbus Commercial Aircraft and Airbus Defence and Space.
The Domain consists of four teams: The Aerodynamics Engineering Team in Filton together with the Aeromechanical Systems Team, the Aerocoustics Team and the Vibro-Acoustics and Structural Dynamics Team which are largely based in Ottobrunn. Overall it’s about 40 people in total including permanent staff, subcontractors, and PhD students.
What I most enjoy is working with people on technically challenging topics. I am very fortunate that the people I work with are very talented and I have been able to recruit and build a team. In 2009, I was appointed Head of Aeromechanics, a newly created department at Airbus. Following the formation of the Aeromechanical Systems team in Ottobrunn, I recruited a further five members of staff to the Aerodynamics team based in Filton to form the multidisciplinary capability required for aeromechanics technologies. The Department has grown and is multinational and multicultural, working in partnership with universities and research establishments, so the focus on building a community that works and collaborates across disciplines as a multi-disciplinary team is very inspiring.
I’ve worked at Airbus for 21 years, and have been doing this role for seven years. I am originally from Northern Ireland. I grew up in Armagh, moved to Belfast to study, did a PhD in Aerodynamics at Queen's University, and worked at Bombardier for three years. In 1995, my wife and I moved to Bristol and joined the British Aerospace Airbus division where I worked on the A380 early design, looking at high Reynolds number wing design. I do joke with my daughter that the reason she has an English accent is because of the A380 which was the attraction in moving.
Concorde was also an inspiration. When I was younger, my Grandfather would give me a comic book every week and the centre pages would have updates on the Concord production in Filton, Bristol. At the time I was living in N. Ireland, so I was fascinated by the aircraft but to think that I would be living in Bristol all these years on, and working in aerospace is something that I would never have dreamed of. And the fact that Concorde is sat in the Filton carpark is very surreal. Watching its last flight did feel like an end of an era and it was quite emotional. We need innovations like this to inspire young people in universities and schools to attract them to a career in engineering.
I enjoyed maths and physics at school and it was suggested by my careers teacher that engineering would be a good choice, although my university applications had geophysics because geography was always an interest to me. I didn't actually realise there was an aircraft factory in Northern Ireland when I chose to do engineering, and remember being quite surprised when I learned there could be opportunities in Belfast. Although Belfast was only 40 miles away, I grew up in a very difficult political time in Northern Ireland, and it did seem quite far away. I was living in a small market town in the country and all my relatives all lived within 15 miles of each other, so even going this distance from home was difficult. I’ve always had an interest in problem solving, maths and physics, and the opportunity to work in Belfast was great, but I soon realised I needed to take on challenges elsewhere. I am fortunate Bristol is such a fantastic place to live.
Be inquisitive and have a desire to understand how things work. There is a technical aspect which is the foundation of your career but an important attribute is working with people and working across borders and boundaries. Have both a technical interest and an interest in people, because everything we do relies on interacting with people. The image of the one person solving the problem is not realistic. It doesn't work that way - you need ideas from others and being able to influence others is another aspect. Sometimes thinking you are right and being right is not everything. You need to engage in discussion to develop your ideas and to win people over, which is all part of the challenge of being an engineer.
At the beginning of my career with Airbus, I was involved in High Reynolds-Number wing design which was utilising the European transonic wind tunnel in Köln (UK Project ‘Attach 2000’). It was my first real experience in wing design, looking at High Reynolds-Number wing testing and how it could be exploited to improve aircraft performance. The project set the foundations for the A380 high speed wing aerodynamics and design.
Following this, I was the author of three successful European proposals, one in High Reynolds-Number wing aerodynamics and validation (HiRETT) , one in winglets (M-DAW) and then also flow control (AVERT) All were successful in getting funding. They were really enjoyable experiences, interacting with the European research community.
Another notable experience was an opportunity at Airbus to push a research agenda. Entering into a part of the business that hadn’t yet got an aerodynamics capability, I was allowed the freedom to identify key areas for research. What this provided was the opportunity to work on laminar flow but as an incremental technology, as opposed to waiting for when the business decides to launch a brand new aircraft that can fully utilise the technology.
Looking at simulation for loads and loads control to reduce aircraft structural weight is also a fascinating area.
Commercial aviation has a number of challenges – one of which is the environmental impact of air travel. We are fortunate to be in a high value industry which continues to grow at a steady rate however the products relay on fossil fuels and reducing our carbon footprint is a key challenge for the industry. So we need to improve the efficiency of our products – lower drag, lower weight. Efficiency is a key technology driver.
Another challenge is that new aircraft are complex in order to be competitive – and this makes them increasingly more costly to develop. We need to find ways of reducing the time and cost to market. Digitalisation has the potential to enable this and it is a technology available to our existing competitors but also new entrants. So we need to ensure we are ahead of the game in this area.
Overcoming these challenges requires transnational investment and collaboration at a global scale. But it is also highly competitive research area and industrial investment will fluctuate according to economic conditions.
In the UK we rely on partnerships with Universities and SME’s (like CFMS). And this has been successful – think of the Airbus DiPART event hosted by CFMS just past. We have the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) which is good and has part-funded much of the Airbus Innovations collaborative research activity. But ultimately industry still has to put up 50% of the project funding. So the key challenge is ‘how do we maintain a level of activity in our Universities and SMEs that enhances our core competencies in a way that is independent of the fluctuations in industrial investment?’
The great thing about the UK is people are willing to come and work here for all over the world. This is also something we need to preserve as it creates a great working environment for innovation.
I think we will see simulation and multi-disciplinary analysis continuing to grow from strength to strength. When I was at Airbus 20 years ago, there was a European project led by Steve Alwright called MDO (Multi-disciplinary Optimization) which was one of the first in bringing organisations and disciplines together to identify how this capability could be realised.
The future digital environment for the engineer will enable better design decisions and enhanced collaboration. It’s never been about one person at a computing station creating the one perfect solution. It is about how digitisation enables collaboration through access to e.g. common models, and identifying the direction to explore the design space. Can we shrink the design cycle time and cost without having to rule out competing designs too early in the process?
In my view perhaps the largest opportunity for simulation is in the improved prediction of aircraft loads – a challenging problem as it requires accurate aerodynamic simulation at the edge of the flight envelop coupled with the aircraft structural response. By reducing any conservatism in the prediction of aircraft loads (static and dynamic), we can further reduce the structural mass of the aircraft giving an increase in efficiency. Of course we need to also think about how we more effectively utilise the vast amount of data we can generate for Wind Tunnel testing: we need to remember that the wind tunnel is also a very powerful simulation tool.
Hopefully, we will see aircraft that will exploit laminar flow as a significant performance enabler. This is an area where simulation can help us understand the performance benefits, required manufacturing tolerances and also the manufacturing costs associated with the tolerances. Business cases are based on the technology production/maintenance costs as well as the performance benefit.
There has been a big push in hybrid (gas turbine and electrical) propulsion and all electric propulsion, which I have been fortunate enough to be involved in. I think the prospects of hybrid electric aircraft in the 100 passenger size is a significant challenge which requires long term investment. However in the medium term hybrid or all electric air vehicles could revolutionise urban transportation within cities. New electrically enabled air vehicles should be quieter when compared to conventional helicopters.
A bicycle, because I like cycling and these new ‘fat bikes’ that have entered the market make cycling on a beach fun. A Bible because it’s part of my history and is a book that both frustrates and inspires me, so being on a desert island would give me a chance to read it in more detail. And, sticking with the B’s, a bottle of Bushmills Irish whiskey because Scotch is so overrated!