Airbus Defence and Space

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From Earth into space – and back again!

The cutting-edge applications developed by the innovative, out-of-the-box business incubators at Airbus Defence and Space and the European Space Agency may be based on space sector technologies, but they are destined for very different ground-based markets.

  A radiometer used in the test campaign for SMOS – shown here during deployment of its MIRAS (Microwave Imaging Radiometer with Aperture Synthesis) instrument – has formed the basis for a dyke-monitoring tool in the Netherlands. (© Airbus Defence and Space/ESA)  “Would you be interested in constructing components for offshore oil platforms?” Some years ago, Airbus Defence and Space’s Michel Toussaint received this unexpected proposal, and although the project never got off the ground commercially, it sowed the seeds of a new mentality: developing products based on the company’s space engineering expertise aimed at other markets, and then reaping the added value of that work. Pursuing this strategy, in 2008 Airbus Defence and Space launched its New Business department, (originally known as ‘Advanced Projects ‘, a team of some 15 experts headed by Michel, which initially focused on the wind energy sector. “There is increasing demand for wind turbine blades of ever greater size and capability – and that dovetails perfectly with our expertise in composite materials applied to large structures and loads,” says Michel.

Two contracts signed over the last year and a half with two wind turbine manufacturers – to produce 45 and 40 blades respectively – gave them marketplace credibility, and the team is now busy designing its own structures for use at sea: wind turbines with 50-metre blades that are capable of supplying between 3.5 and 4.5 megawatts of electricity while performing automatic monitoring functions. The first demonstrator is due for delivery by mid-2012. “Before going into production, we decided to set up an incubator which encompasses a study of the technology’s commercial viability and a two-year analysis to ensure that there will be sufficient investment capacity to take the product further,” is how Michel explains the general process.

Airbus Defence and Space is planning to construct 50m-long wind turbine blades. (© Airbus Defence and Space / Crossings)


With double-digit annual growth and global production exceeding 200,000 megawatts in 2010 – according to calculations by the World Wind Energy Association – this market is expected to experience a boost from 2015 onwards as companies install large-scale offshore wind farms, with the wind being stronger and more consistent out at sea. As Michel says, there is still some way to go before blade size reaches its limits: “Studies have been carried out with blades 80 metres long – that’s a diameter of 160 metres, bigger than an A380! It’s not the design or technology aspects that will restrict what’s possible, but rather how to transport and install such enormous structures out at sea.”

As to the future, the New Business team has already come up with some creative forms of collaboration in other areas, such as negotiating a contract with a large train manufacturer to use high-performance composites in high-speed trains. Meanwhile, in the arena of complex systems engineering, another incubator has been developing hybrid propulsion demonstrators for racing car engines produced by a well-known automobile manufacturer, an application that is based on the energy management system of the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). “We offer customers a small, flexible team that can respond rapidly to their needs combined with the established industrial process engineering that is one of Airbus Defence and Space’s greatest strengths,” Michel says.

A ‘greenhouse’ for new projects

Making space technologies the breeding ground for applications in other markets is also the hallmark of the ESA Technology Transfer Programme (ESA TTP). Some of these space technology transfers are based on Airbus Defence and Space technology. To take a few examples: solutions applied in the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory are now being used to produce computer chips and detect radioactive materials in ‘dirty bombs’; a radiometer used for the SMOS satellite validation campaign has served as the basis for a tool to monitor dykes in the Netherlands; and the technology developed to control satellites such as Envisat is being deployed in remote monitoring systems for oil and gas platforms.

Another pillar of ESA TTP is its Business Incubation Centres (ESA BICs), which have helped create close to 80 new companies already. One of the entrepreneurs inspired by Airbus Defence and Space’s scientific findings is Miguel Durães. His start-up company MDUSpace, incubated in the ESA BIC Noordwijk, modified the object recognition and tracking concepts used by the ATV to dock with the International Space Station and integrated them in control systems for automotive assembly lines. The pilot project was carried out at Volkswagen’s Autoeuropa factory in the town of Palmela in Portugal. Among its benefits, the project provides higher precision in dashboard assembly robot cells, brings savings thanks to lower synchronisation costs and offers a system that is easy to install on any assembly line. “We basically combine a camera with object recognition software. But computational vision is still in its infancy – there is plenty of room for improvement yet!” Miguel explains.

MDUSpace adapted ATV docking technology to car assembly processes. (© MDUSpace – © Airbus Defence and Space / Silicon World)


The three team members working on the project hope to improve results by adding a second camera to obtain 3D images, as well as by using more powerful hardware. The next step would be to replace the two cameras with an infrared camera. “The space community has a tendency to be blinkered and insular; too many people have no idea what research is going on in other sectors of their own industry. This network of business incubators marks a real sea change. It pushes people to be more open-minded and enables us to exchange ideas and innovations more freely,” sums up Miguel.